The Alolan archipelago has at last surrendered all (or, well, most) of its secrets – so now the time has finally come for us to leave behind the world we know. The stars have aligned, the ritual is complete, the Dark Forces from Parts Unknown have imparted their mystic secrets, the Ultra Wormhole beckons, and the void opens before us, promising nothing at the price of everything. Yep – we’re figuring out the Ultra Beasts. There’s ten of these freaky bastards (not counting Lunala, Solgaleo and Necrozma), and they’re each getting their own entry. My aim over the course of those ten articles will be not just to review the Ultra Beasts individually, but also to, hopefully, figure out… well, something about them as a group. What are they? What exactly is Ultra Space? Why are they such a threat to Alola? Are they really a group at all, or just a random sample of the variety of life that exists in an infinite multiverse? All these questions, and more, will… honestly, let’s face it, probably not be answered here on Pokémaniacal, but we’ll bloody well give it a go – starting with probably the best-known Ultra Beast of all, Nihilego.
Nihilego’s name is made up of what are ultimately two Latin words: nihil, meaning “nothing,” and ego, meaning “I.” Ego has also come into modern English as both a word for pride and a technical term in Freudian psychoanalysis, where it refers to the moderating aspect of the psyche that balances the impulses of the logical, moralistic superego and the instinctual, lustful id (Freud is famous in psychology today for being largely bull$#!t, but his ideas are nonetheless hugely influential in pop culture). You may recognise nihil as the core element of the English verb “annihilate”: to destroy utterly, to reduce to nothing. When I wrote up my playthrough journal of Moon version, I interpreted Nihilego’s name as meaning “that which annihilates the self,” on the basis of its observed behaviour during the events of Sun and Moon, and particularly its interactions with the games’ villain, Aether Foundation president Lusamine.
Nihilego is alien. All the Ultra Beasts are, to a greater or lesser extent, but Nihilego plays it up more than most of them. It doesn’t have any distinct facial features, which is very unusual for Pokémon and is probably meant to make it unsettling, and less relatable. Its physical form is clearly inspired by a jellyfish, but we can compare here the existing jellyfish Pokémon, Tentacruel and Jellicent, who have very expressive faces. The star patterns added to its transparent, domed ‘head’ might be meant to allude to its ‘cosmic’ origins and the fact that the Ultra Beasts are essentially aliens. Jellyfish are weird creatures already – communal organisms that look like single individuals, utterly different from any land animal, ludicrously fragile but potentially deadly – and then Sun and Moon present us with a hovering jellyfish creature from outside our universe that enters our world through a mysterious dimensional portal and speaks in strange high-pitched trills. It’s hard not to think of the tentacular monstrosities from the twisted nightmares of the Lovecraft universe that crawl around the ragged edges of our sanity, although they more closely resemble cephalopods than jellyfish. On the other hand, there’s something weirdly angelic about the pure white “wings” of Nihilego’s trailing tentacles and the way it floats, gracefully and elegantly, through the air (bearing in mind also that biblical descriptions of angels are pretty sanity-altering too). And then the Pokédex confidently tells us that “it’s unclear whether or not this Pokémon is sentient, but sometimes it can be observed behaving like a young girl.” We get absolutely no context to what that means (sleepovers, gossiping about cute boys, covering everything in glitter?) but it could plausibly be a reference to the horror movie archetype of the creepily un-child-like little girl. I wouldn’t be the first to note that the shape of Nihilego’s body, with its tentacles hanging down behind it like a cape, is also weirdly reminiscent of Lillie’s first hairstyle (which she promptly changes after the big confrontation with Lusamine and Nihilego in the Aether Paradise).
Nihilego is the first Ultra Beast we meet, appearing during our initial visit to the Aether Paradise through an Ultra Wormhole opened by Lusamine’s experiments with samples of cosmic matter taken from Nebby the Cosmog. Lusamine is immediately fascinated by it, and becomes determined to protect it, ostensibly as an extension of her work with the Aether Foundation as a conservationist. However, when she later kidnaps Nebby and uses his power to summon Nihilego a second time, it becomes pretty clear that she is unhealthily obsessed with the Ultra Beasts in general and Nihilego in particular, which she views as the only thing in all existence beautiful enough to deserve her love. When defeated, she follows Nihilego back to its own world, where we encounter her at the game’s climax, claiming to be in a “paradise” “filled with only the things that [she loves].” Nihilego comes from a place which the original Sun and Moon simply called “Ultra Space,” but the sequels clarify that this is only one of many worlds that can be reached by traversing Ultra Space. Its new name is the “Ultra Deep Sea,” and it appears as a dark, mysterious cavern filled with mushroom-shaped crystal formations. Despite the name, there’s no obvious evidence of water, and humans can move around and breathe there without assistance. “Deep Sea” may just refer to Nihilego being based on a marine creature, or perhaps to a resemblance between the crystal formations and corals. When you catch up with Lusamine in this alien land(?)scape, a Nihilego she has captured drapes itself over her head and somehow fuses itself with her, creating a powerful and maniacal hybrid creature that commands Lusamine’s other Pokémon against you while enhancing their powers. After losing the battle, Lusamine tries to attack the player directly, but is prevented by Nebby’s intervention; in the anime, we see her fight Ash and Pikachu, using what seems to be Sludge Wave as well as attacking with Nihilego’s tentacles.
The Ultra Beast task force led by Anabel and Looker refers to Nihilego by the code name “UB-01 Symbiont,” though in the Japanese version of the game they give it a more sinister designation: “UB-01 Parasite” (パラサイト, parasaito). The “Parasite Pokémon” is also its species designation in the Pokédex. Which is more accurate is perhaps up for debate. Nihilego “infests” other life forms in order to survive – this is presumably what happens to Lusamine in the Ultra Deep Sea, but her increasingly erratic behaviour in the lead-up to going full One-Winged Angel (particularly her idolisation of Nihilego) could also be the symptoms of an early stage caused by exposure to the Ultra Beast’s venom. According to the Aether Foundation researcher Wicke, Nihilego’s venom is “incredibly stimulating” and provokes “extreme excitement and a lack of inhibition.” It doesn’t control your actions, as such – it boosts all of your natural skills and abilities to superhuman levels, and then strips you of all the moral and social restrictions that normally govern your behaviour. To put it another way, it “annihilates” your Freudian “ego,” so that your newfound power will all be applied in the service of your “id,” your unfiltered desires.
The implication is that every bat$#!t thing Lusamine does is entirely her own idea – perhaps not what she’d actually do upon sober consideration, but certainly something that would cross her mind. Given Lillie’s testimony on the subject, it seems like Lusamine’s obsession with the Ultra Beasts and deteriorating relationship with her children began long before she ever actually met a Nihilego in person. It’s possible that Nihilego – like one of Lovecraft’s sinister elder gods – had been whispering to Lusamine from outside the universe since long before the events of Sun and Moon. Given the nature of the Ultra Beast’s powers, though, I think it’s more probably that her issues were the result of totally ‘natural’ psychological disorders (brought on, presumably, by the trauma of her husband’s disappearance in Ultra Space). Nihilego just encouraged and enabled her. This is, kind of, exactly what’s terrifying about it. Like the elder gods, it’s not actually evil – again, the Pokédex isn’t even sure whether it’s sentient. In its own world, there may even be creatures with which it enjoys a truly symbiotic relationship, either because they’re not particularly sentient either, or because their physiology isn’t affected by Nihilego’s toxins in the same way. It doesn’t want to cause harm; it doesn’t even care – like all the Ultra Beasts, it just does what’s in its nature, in an environment that is utterly ill-equipped to deal with it.
Nihilego has the unique Rock/Poison type combination and, like most Ultra Beasts, a very skewed stat distribution. Its excellent HP and special defence allow it to soak up powerful special attacks quite comfortably; it’s also fast, with powerful special attacks of its own. Its physical stats, on the other hand, are garbage – in fact, it has the lowest defence of any fully-evolved Rock Pokémon by a fairly significant margin (with second place shared by Rampardos and core-form Minior). Nihilego shares with all Ultra Beasts their signature ability, Beast Boost, which gives an Ultra Beast a bonus to whichever stat is already its highest whenever it scores a knock-out. In principle Nihilego’s highest stat is special defence, but it doesn’t take much training to tip the balance in favour of special attack if you so desire, and having Beast Boost hit an offensive stat is usually better because of the snowball potential for an Ultra Beast attempting a sweep. Nihilego thus works as a versatile hybrid of special tank and opportunistic sweeper. Its primary Poison attack can be either Sludge Wave or Sludge Bomb (in singles, this depends on whether you prefer Sludge Wave’s slightly higher power or Sludge Bomb’s much higher poisoning rate), but pickings are unfortunately slim on its Rock side. The only common Rock-type special attack is Power Gem, which, despite a buff in generation VI, is still a fairly weak move with no secondary effect. On the other hand, Rock is a powerful offensive type, and the rest of Nihilego’s special movepool is fine, but far from dazzling, so it’s still worth consideration. Its other major special attacks are Thunderbolt, Dazzling Gleam, Grass Knot and Psychic (or Psyshock, which adds a little bit of versatility as a special attack that does physical damage). If you want four attacks, then exactly which combination you like best is up to you, but you should bear in mind that only Thunderbolt is effective against Steel-types, and Grass Knot is usually the best for doing a number on Ground-types, who resist both of Nihilego’s primary attacks (and are usually very heavy). Acid Spray is interesting, allowing Nihilego to punch through Pokémon with very high special defence that it otherwise wouldn’t be able to break, but with type coverage that’s already a little on the ‘meh’ side, it can be difficult to justify.
Nihilego is perfectly capable of pulling off a four-attacks moveset, especially since the Beast Boost ability and a little luck can make it into an extremely formidable special attacker. In a tank role, it’s hampered a little by its very weak physical defence and lack of healing moves other than Rest (the Ultra Sun and Moon move tutors do give it Pain Split, but that doesn’t mix well with a high base HP). It does, however, have two notable support moves: Stealth Rock and Toxic Spikes, which can damage or poison opposing Pokémon as they switch into battle. Either is valuable enough to be worth including on Nihilego’s moveset. There’s almost an argument for combining Toxic Spikes with Venoshock in place of more conventional Poison attack, exploiting Toxic Spikes’ auto-poison capability to guarantee that Venoshock will get its bonus for attacking a poisoned target, making it an extremely powerful attack. The danger is that Toxic Spikes is the easiest entry hazard to get rid of. Your opponent doesn’t even need Rapid Spin or Defog; just switching in a Poison-type that doesn’t fly will absorb the trap (and of course Nihilego may need to start fighting before it can set up Toxic Spikes). A boosted Venoshock is almost 40% more powerful than Sludge Wave, but whether the unreliability is worth it will have to be a personal choice. Reflect is a possibility to protect Nihilego’s decidedly friable physical defences, since even the thought of suffering a physical hit is potentially enough to scare it off. Light Screen and Mirror Coat are both there, but Nihilego is so resilient to special attacks anyway that few Pokémon will dare try to attack it that way. Foul Play is interesting because it lets Nihilego strike at its opponents’ physical defence without using its own abysmal attack stat, but since it relies on the target’s attack stat instead, Psyshock is a more reliable way of doing much the same thing. The main problem with any of these moves, as with Acid Spray, is that Nihilego really does need its coverage attacks to make good use of its excellent special attack score, since Poison is a notoriously bad offensive type.
Fast special attacker is a really unusual role for both Rock- and Poison-types, so Nihilego makes good use of its lack of any fealty to reality to create a unique battle style – in my opinion, a solid exploitation of the design space opened up by the concept of the Ultra Beasts. Its behaviour and involvement in the plot of Sun and Moon also wholeheartedly embrace a sci-fi horror angle that was previously alien to Pokémon. It is, to be honest, not even close to being the most enthusiastically weird Ultra Beast – that title is something I’m going to have to decide over the next few weeks as we tackle the rest of them – but it’s still an exploration of ideas that are pretty different to Pokémon’s standard fare of previous generations, and that, to me, is worthwhile.