…I mean, do I really need to-?
…then again, “Team Rocket is gay now” is pretty compelling
(what am I saying, “now”? look at Jessie and James; they were always gay)
all right, let’s try for a shorter one
In the aftermath of the resolution of the main plot in Ultra Sun and Moon, Team Rocket appears out of nowhere and takes over first Festival Plaza and then the entire Aether Paradise, renovating Lusamine’s mansion with a new menacing black-and-red colour scheme. Only they aren’t Team Rocket anymore – they’ve rebranded, are now Team Rainbow Rocket, and are accompanied by a rogue’s gallery of villains from all the previous Pokémon games. And they’ve got plans. Apparently. I know a lot of my readers haven’t actually played Ultra SMoon (which… well, fair enough; they’re not a big step up over Sun and Moon) so let’s begin with a summary of what exactly happens.
We all know Team Rocket, I think it’s safe to say. We first met them in Kanto, all the way back in the original Pokémon: Red and Blue. They are essentially the Pokémon mafia: they steal Pokémon, traffic in stolen Pokémon, and also use those stolen Pokémon to commit further crimes. They’re uncomplicated villains; they’re bad because they’re bad, and we fight them because that’s what heroes do. Their second appearance in Gold and Silver focuses on something that would become a trend of Pokémon villains – a cult of personality around the leader. In part, their appearance in Ultra SMoon mirrors their efforts in Red and Blue: they take over an organisation that is publicly known to be developing powerful technology, in order to seize that technology for further criminal gains. It’s the scale of those further gains that’s different. Team Rocket hit Silph Co. for the Master Ball schematics, which would have allowed them to effortlessly capture large numbers of powerful Pokémon. They went after the Aether Foundation for Lusamine’s wormhole manipulation technology, which they intend to use to travel between parallel worlds, collecting allies from the worst villains of each reality, build an army of Ultra Beasts from throughout Ultra Space, and ultimately… conquer the multiverse, I guess??? So they’re setting their sights a tad higher. Arguably the largest-scope villain in Pokémon’s history so far is Cyrus, who wanted to unmake the universe; Giovanni now seems intent on topping that by setting himself up as an existential threat to all possible universes. The epilogue to generation VIII will probably see him capture a legendary Pokémon with the power to break the fourth wall, use it to invade Game Freak’s offices in Setagaya, and hold the Pokémon franchise itself for ransom. The current mess is eventually resolved by the intervention of Colress, the scientist character that played a major role in the plot of Black and White 2, who (for some reason) has a machine that can disentangle overlapping realities and banish people back to their original universes.
The meat of the Team Rainbow Rocket incident is a string of battles with villains from Pokémon’s past, plucked from alternate realities by Giovanni and now continuing their research in different wings of the “castle” they have created out of Lusamine’s mansion. These battles are the whole reason to have Team Rainbow Rocket in the first place – it’s the same appeal as Black and White 2’s tournaments; we get to battle an all-star line-up of famous and influential characters from the games’ history. First we face Archie and Maxie, followed by Cyrus and Lysandre, then Ghetsis, finally leading up to our confrontation with Giovanni himself in Lusamine’s private lab. Oh, and Faba of the Aether Foundation is also there, but… who gives a $#!t? Each man gives an account of what happened to him in the lead-up to being recruited to Team Rainbow Rocket. The events they describe seem to represent timelines in which there were no heroes to stop them – no May or Brendan to quiet Kyogre and Groudon; no Lucas or Dawn to free the Lake Spirits of Sinnoh and keep reality from unravelling; and so on. The villains’ plans almost succeed, but end in disaster anyway, both for them and for their entire worlds (which says something about how Pokémon understands its villains; all of them are ultimately self-destructive). Maxie and Archie were overtaken by natural disasters of their own making; Cyrus was swallowed up by “a great shadow,” presumably Giratina; Lysandre mentions being consumed by a “bright light” (plausibly a euphemism for death) after activating the Ultimate Weapon. Only Ghetsis makes no allusion to the end results of his own original plans, saying only that he was “summoned” to this version of reality. Archie and Maxie, interestingly, have the designs and personalities of their original Ruby and Sapphire selves, not the Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby remakes. Pokémon’s idea of the multiverse has already been set up to allow this, since the remakes heavily implied that the original Ruby and Sapphire took place in an alternate timeline, one that was largely defined by the absence of Mega Evolution. It’s unfortunate that the original Archie and Maxie are much more… well, boring. On the other hand, it’s harder to imagine the newer, more complex versions of the characters teaming up with Giovanni to, as discussed, conquer the multiverse.
All the villains use not only Pokémon from their in-game teams, but one of the legendary Pokémon associated with their plot. Archie and Maxie use Kyogre and Groudon, respectively (without their Primal forms – because, again, we’re dealing with original Ruby and Sapphire Maxie and Archie). Cyrus, Lysandre and Ghetsis each get one of two, depending on whether you’re playing Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon: Dialga or Palkia for Cyrus, Xerneas or Yveltal for Lysandre, and Reshiram or Zekrom for Ghetsis. Some of this is obviously… weird, story-wise. Archie and Maxie’s plans become derailed precisely because they can’t control Kyogre and Groudon, and nothing in their account of the alternate timelines they came from contradicts this. I also feel like Dialga/Palkia and Zekrom/Reshiram are not the best choices available for Cyrus and Ghetsis. On Cyrus, I’m nitpicking a bit because I love the way Generations portrayed the end of his story, but even on the basis of events in the Distortion World on Platinum, it seems clear to me that his legendary Pokémon should have been Giratina. As for Ghetsis… well, he never even attempted to control Reshiram or Zekrom. He always worked through N; it was Kyurem that he wound up with, in the end. On the other hand, his appearance here is clearly based on his ostentatious Black and White design, not his dark, sinister Black and White 2 design, so arguably there’s no legendary Pokémon who makes any sense on his team. Turns out interesting stories are hard to reduce to formulaic sequences; who knew?
According to Faba, all these villains came to join Team Rainbow Rocket because “the Ultra Wormhole has resonated with the boss’s ideology.” This, I suppose, means that Giovanni is just so evil that it attracts other evil people from across the multiverse, like the Ultra Wormholes lock onto people who are just as $#!tty as him and forcefully draw them to the centre (come to think of it, if this is a general property of Ultra Wormholes, it might say something about Lusamine and Nihilego, the “Parasite Pokémon”). Also according to Fava, though, they’re pretty much just bumming around in their own wings of the castle pursuing whatever research they were already involved in, not doing anything in particular to advance any specific aim of Team Rainbow Rocket. Giovanni just says he “allowed the other bosses to do as they wished, hoping they would be of use,” which… which… well, let me put it this way: what do you think is the best-case outcome of collecting supervillains from across the multiverse (several of them with goals that are mutually exclusive or even diametrically opposed), giving them access to massive resources and incredibly advanced technology, then setting them loose with no instructions and just hoping they happen to do something useful? On one level, what Giovanni is doing here makes sense, because a consistent theme of his character (and the source of his rift with his son Silver) is how much he values the strength of organisations, his ability to bring together groups of villains to be greater than the sum of their parts. It’s just a little bit wild to learn that he’s so bad at it. Only Ghetsis has a coherent reason for being here and working with Team Rainbow Rocket: he believes Giovanni will be a much more predictable and useful pawn than the “freak” N, whom he still considers subhuman, and he intends to set himself up as the power behind the throne. Of course, it’s not clear how far Ghetsis is actually manipulating Giovanni, versus how much he’s just being a pompous blowhard with delusions of grandeur (which would absolutely be in character for him) – I can believe that Giovanni might allow Ghetsis to think he’s pulling the strings.
Giovanni himself fights you at the end of the story, using a variant of his gym team from the original games plus Mewtwo, who can also Mega Evolve (into its X or Y form, depending on your version of the game). This is actually fairly brutal; I don’t know what a typical party level for most players at this point is, but when I fought Giovanni his Mega Mewtwo Y was strong enough to outrun and one-shot all six of my Pokémon, which pretty much left me praying that some of them would dodge or survive attacks thanks to affection bonuses. More interestingly, I think this might be the first time the games have alluded to the idea that Giovanni and Team Rocket had something to do with Mewtwo’s creation, as he explicitly did in the anime. The Giovanni we fight is… I think implied to be some alternate universe version, as with all the other bad guys in Team Rainbow Rocket. The “canonical” Giovanni gave up on Team Rocket after losing to the Kanto protagonist in the Viridian Gym and losing again to the Johto protagonist in a time-travelling caper ordained by Celebi, so like all the others this must be a version of him who wasn’t stopped by a hero. Then again, he doesn’t seem to be banished by Colress like all the other villains; a cutscene shows him watching us from afar as we pick ourselves up in the aftermath of the incident, musing about which “new world” he should try to conquer next (Galar and generation VIII, here we come?) before vanishing into some kind of swirly energy thingy. If Colress’ machine didn’t affect him, does that mean this is already his homeworld? Besides, I’m fairly sure that the whole point of taking over the Aether Foundation was to subvert their wormhole technology to enable Team Rainbow Rocket to travel between worlds, so if Giovanni is from another world and didn’t have Aether tech already, then how did he actually get here? But on yet another note, if this is our “canonical” world’s Giovanni, what the hell brought him out of retirement after two crushing defeats and years spent in obscurity? I have to admit this is partly just me really liking the portrayal of Giovanni in Pokémon: Origins, in which his retirement is entirely sincere and accompanied by a hint of hope for redemption. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect storytelling of that calibre from the Pokémon games, but… well, that is letting them off the hook a bit, isn’t it?
As long as I’m talking about all the aspects of the Team Rainbow Rocket episode that I take issue with, let’s talk a bit about Lusamine. When I first played through all this stuff, I thought “ah-ha, they’re going to do something with “mother beast” Lusamine from the original Sun and Moon,” since that form never appears in the main story of Ultra SMoon and, as noted in my character study of Lusamine herself, the games’ story actually does suffer from not witnessing Lusamine go off the deep end. You’d barely need to give any additional explanation, because the premise of Team Rainbow Rocket is that they borrow villains from alternate realities, and the whole concept of alternate realities in the Pokémon games was introduced in order to explain away the divergent versions of the same storyline portrayed different games. It would have been powerful and cathartic to see Lillie, and indeed Lusamine herself, confront the villain she could have become. She’s also someone Giovanni should want to recruit – he wants to build an army of Ultra Beasts, she has an affinity for Ultra Beasts; he needs the technology of the Aether Foundation, she designed some of the technology of the Aether Foundation. Besides, “mother beast” Lusamine is scary and cool, and it’s a shame that we don’t get to see her in Ultra SMoon. It makes so much narrative and thematic sense for a villainous alternate Lusamine to be part of the Team Rainbow Rocket storyline that it could have been written specifically to give her screen time in the new games. Only… it wasn’t, and she’s not there. And to me it’s a bit jarring to have all these other villains jammed into the story with only the thinnest of plot justification, only to leave out the one villain who requires practically none and would have actually added something to the plot with almost no effort.
The whole Team Rainbow Rocket saga sort of tries to establish Giovanni as this… like… cosmically evil übervillain whose sheer overwhelming malice has bound every other bad guy in Pokémon’s history to him by force of will. And… well, look, he’s got mystique, you have to give him that, but ultimately he’s a mob boss who ran a smuggling ring, held up an office block, and financed some dubious genetics research. He didn’t try to unmake the universe and become a god, or abuse a child for years in order to mould him into the brainwashed messiah of a fanatical dragon cult. There’s degrees of nastiness here, is all I mean to say. The notion of Giovanni trying to conquer the multiverse with an army of assorted supervillains just… rings hollow to me. Each of the other villains being part of his new team also rings hollow (with the arguable exception of Ghetsis, who is just about the only person here who feels well-written and in-character). I don’t know what the Team Rainbow Rocket story is trying to do – well, no, that’s a lie, I know exactly what it’s trying to do; it’s an excuse to give all the old villains and a bunch of major legendary Pokémon some battle cameos, but I’m not sure there’s anything beyond that. Maybe that’s all you want, as a nostalgic Pokémon player who’s tangled with all these assholes before and dreams of getting another chance to give them all a black eye – I do get that, for some people, that’s probably enough for this to be a really cool time. I just find it disappointing though, when (to my mind, at least) there is ample evidence in the story of Sun and Moon that Pokémon is perfectly capable of doing better.