The regional variant Pokémon we’re looking at today all evolve from Pokémon that do not have regional variant forms of their own – a Pikachu, Cubone or Exeggcute caught or hatched in Alola will look much the same as a Pikachu, Cubone or Exeggcute caught or hatched anywhere else. In fact, they don’t just look the same, they are the same; an Alolan Pikachu that is sent to Galar will evolve into a standard Raichu (even though Sword and Shield do know what an Alolan Raichu is, and Pokémon games do track each individual Pokémon’s region of origin), while a Pikachu that arrives in Alola from anywhere else will evolve into an Alolan Raichu. That’s weird, because other regional forms don’t work this way (with the exception of two Galarian forms, Weezing and Mr. Mime); you can take an Alolan Rattata to any region of the world and keep it there for as long as you like, it’ll still evolve into an Alolan Raticate. Let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on here.
Alolan Raichu – or Psychu, as I am going to insist on calling it – is a psychic surfer, using its enlarged tail as a surfboard as it glides through the air on a field of levitating telekinetic energy. Surfing as we know it – catching a wave and then riding it while standing on a flat board – was invented in ancient Polynesia and introduced to the rest of the world primarily through American tourism in Hawai‘i, and is still mostly seen as a tropical beach holiday activity today. Of course, we have to have a surfer Pokémon for the Hawaiian-inspired tropical beach paradise region. Weirdly, though, the Pokédex says that this form of Raichu is known in Alola as a “hodad” – 50s and 60s California surfer slang for a non-surfer who hangs out on beaches and adopts surfer aesthetics (possibly from Spanish jodido, “crappy,” although the etymology on this one is sketchy). In a way, this is kind of appropriate – Raichu acts like a surfer and looks like a surfer with its surfboard tail, but isn’t really an aquatic Pokémon at all and doesn’t have Water abilities; it just uses its psychic powers to fake it. It’s just strange to me because “hodad” is sort of a mildly negative term that implies a person is something of a poseur. I was curious about this, so I actually looked up the Japanese text of the relevant Pokédex entry, which calls Psychu a riku sāfā (陸サーファー) – a “land surfer” or “shore surfer.” This is a real term from Japanese surfing culture that means basically what “hodad” does in English, but seems (and anyone whose Japanese is better than mine – not a high bar – should absolutely research this properly if they have the time) to have less negative connotations. The shades of meaning are pretty fine; “hodad” is clearly the correct literal translation into English, but I suspect it comes across more patronising than originally intended.
Anyway, why should Raichu be the hodad Pokémon? Well, of course, because of Surfing Pikachu.
The mysterious “Surfing Pikachu” is an old archetype, going well back into the generation I era. I think the very earliest Surfing Pikachu may actually be the one from the trading card game, which first appeared in a promotional distribution through the Japanese gaming and manga magazine CoroCoro as early as August 1997, only 18 months after Red and Green first hit the shelves (its first English print run didn’t come until 2001, but those of a certain age might also remember Surfing Pikachu from the GameBoy Colour version of the Pokémon trading card game, released internationally in 2000). The next year, Yellow Version had a surfing minigame that you could play at the beach just south of Fuchsia City – although I say “could” in a purely hypothetical sense, as you originally needed a Pikachu with the move Surf to play it, and I actually don’t know of any Nintendo events that gave out Pikachu with Surf in either generation I or II, at least not in English-speaking countries (in the virtual console re-release of Yellow, fortunately, you can just use your partner Pikachu) [EDIT: There was a challenge that unlocks a Pikachu with Surf in the N64 game Pokémon Stadium; you could then transfer it back to one of the generation I games]. There have been a bunch of different ways of getting Surfing Pikachu over the years, with varying degrees of exclusivity, but as of Sword and Shield, all Pikachu – and indeed all Raichu, Alolan or otherwise – can learn Surf (a nice addition to Raichu’s fairly anaemic special movepool), so it’s no longer a particularly secret or special ability.
So again, there’s nothing special about Alolan Pikachu. You might be able to retroactively claim that Puka, the surfing Pikachu from the Kanto anime episode The Pi-kahuna, represents an Alolan Pikachu – he has bright blue eyes like an Alolan Raichu, as well as some kind of mysterious power that lets him intuit (possibly even control) the behaviour of waves and water. That might be a stretch, though; we’ve never seen another Pikachu with similar abilities, as far as I know – a Pikachu is a Pikachu – and as we’ve seen, Psychu aren’t actually surfers like Puka, but hodads. So what exactly is it that makes them gain psychic powers and evolve differently in Alola? The Sun Version Pokédex says that researchers believe it’s because of their diet; Sword updates this to suggest that diet and the Alolan climate both play a role. Let’s Go even offers a specific food that might have something to do with the unique evolution – “pancakes prepared with a secret Alolan recipe” (these are, perhaps, the same pancakes featured in the anime episode Racing to a Big Event, in which Pikachu enters a pancake race and… look, never mind, you kinda just have to watch it). I’ve been asked before about Psychu and why this evolution happens, and it was suggested to me that Pikachu are actually native to Alola – that the psychic abilities are an ancestral trait, which is normally dormant and atrophied, but can be activated by exposure to the right environmental stimuli. I think this actually makes a lot of sense if we want to explain Psychu in the context of something resembling real-world genetics and evolution, and it wouldn’t be the only case of a Pokémon whose “native” or “original” form is actually the regional variant (this is supposed to be the case for Zigzagoon in Galar, and the Alolans claim it’s also true for Exeggutor, as we’re about to see). The trouble is, it doesn’t feel right – like, really, the ancestors of all Pikachu were psychic surf bros all along? Surfing is cultural, so I want the answer to be that Pikachu evolve into Psychu because they’re exposed to Alolan culture, gaining psychic abilities through some kind of… surf zen? That isn’t borne out by the text, though. Maybe those pancakes really are just magic…
As type changes go, the addition of Psychic to Pikachu’s Electric is a mixed blessing. As a straight Electric-type, Raichu had only one weakness (Ground); with Psychic, it gets a total of four. On the other hand, Raichu has aggressive stats, and aggressive Pokémon are usually stronger with two types than one, because that means more moves with a same-type bonus. Kantonian Raichu has balanced attack and special attack stats, but struggles to fill out a full moveset focusing on either side, and doesn’t quite have the raw power to make it as a mixed attacker (and with Nasty Plot on its move list, Raichu knows which basket it would rather put its eggs in). Psychu adds powerful Psychic attacks, as well as a slight stat adjustment in favour of special attacks. It has a couple of Psychic utility moves as well, notably Calm Mind, but Psychic and Psyshock are the real draw, as far as its movepool goes. Psychu also gets a neat new ability: Surge Surfer, which doubles its speed while Electric Terrain is in effect. Electric Terrain has never been as powerful as sun and rain effects were in their heyday in generation V, and it’s further hampered by the fact that, with Tapu Koko absent from Sword and Shield, the only Pokémon who currently has the Electric Surge ability that sets up this field effect for free is, of all things, Pincurchin. Still, double speed is a hefty bonus, well worth considering when picking out teammates for Psychu – and, if nothing else, it’s easier to take advantage of than Lightning Rod and just plain kicks the $#!t out of Static. Psychu just doesn’t really lose anything, other than having Psychic-type weaknesses, so like a lot of Alolan forms, it’s not quite a strict upgrade, but it’s pretty close.
Alolan Marowak take the somewhat morbid devotion to honouring the dead that characterises Kantonian Marowak, and turn it up to eleven. They not only get a new Goth colour scheme, but replace the bone club wielded by a Kantonian Marowak with a long bone staff, burning at both ends with spectral green fire. Marowak have always had a strange connection with their departed ancestors, using ritual to honour their dead, and harnessing their grief, regret and desire for vengeance to push themselves harder in battle. Alolan Marowak have jumped right off the deep end into full-on death cult territory, using even more elaborate rituals to summon the souls of their dead as vengeful spirit guardians. According to the Pokédex, the green flames embody the spirit of Marowak’s lost mother and carry a powerful curse that makes them impossible to put out with water. The fire powers are also, apparently, some kind of response to Alola’s lush climate. Ultra Sun explains that “the rich greenery of the Alola region is hard on Marowak,” so it “controls fire to stay alive,” which is a weird sentiment but might be meant as a reference to the fact that, as Ground-types, standard Marowak are weak against Grass attacks. This doesn’t seem to have inconvenienced any of the other Ground Pokémon that are found in Alola, like Mudbray, Sandile or Barboach, but then again, if they could transform into Fire-types just by learning some magical rituals, maybe they would too.
In the story of Sun and Moon, we encounter Alolan Marowak as part of Kiawe’s trial at Wela Volcano. They assist him in performing traditional Alolan fire dances (watching these dances is the core of the trial), marching in circles and dextrously spinning their bone staves. The reference here is to “fire knife” (siva afi) dancing, originally a Samoan artform that has spread throughout Polynesia and become a key spectacle of modern Hawaiian luau. These performances evolved from traditional displays of skill by Samoan warriors, dancing acrobatically with a sharp-edged war club. The fire is a modern innovation, added in the 1940s by Samoan-American performer (and later Paramount Chief) Freddie Letuli, who wrapped a towel around each end of his machete and set them ablaze for his legendary “Flaming Sword of Samoa” dance routine. The “purest” version of the artform still uses machetes, requiring, naturally, a pretty impressive degree of skill to avoid chopping bits off yourself. However, commercial performers in Hawai‘i these days may also use batons (not unlike Marowak’s bone staff), ropes, bolas, even nunchucks. There’s no connection between any of these dances and appeasing or invoking the spirits of the dead, except in the very broad sense that traditional performances are a way of maintaining a connection to your ancestors. It is true, though, that honouring one’s ancestors and keeping their memory alive is a vitally important duty in Polynesian culture, and that those ancestors will reliably offer guidance and protection in return. I suspect that’s something that Pokémon’s creators could relate to, since traditional Japanese religion follows the same basic principle – and, obviously, it’s something Marowak can embrace wholeheartedly.
Alolan Marowak have the same stats as Kantonian ones, and can use the same Thick Club signature item that doubles Marowak’s attack stat, making it one of the most terrifyingly powerful physical attackers in the game (unfortunately its speed is still dreadful, but hey, what can you do?). Alolan Marowak can also learn all the same moves, since they evolve from ordinary Ground-type Cubone. Their Ground attacks are a bit weaker, of course, but they do still get them. One of Alolan Marowak’s abilities is different – Cursed Body – which is interesting and flavourful but sadly not particularly useful; Rock Head remains its strongest choice, although there is now a better argument for Lightning Rod (a dud ability on Kantonian Marowak), since Alolan Marowak don’t naturally have immunity to Electric attacks. The fun thing about the Alolan form is the extra Fire- and Ghost-type attacks it learns, most importantly Flare Blitz and its signature move, Shadow Bone (ordinary Marowak can learn Fire Punch, but Flare Blitz is much better, especially with Rock Head to negate its recoil damage). Shadow Bone isn’t an especially brilliant attack; its power is decent and it comes with a small chance to reduce the target’s physical defence, but nothing special. The main benefit to Shadow Bone is that there is still no Ghost-type physical attack that is both strong and widely available – if you haven’t got a signature move, you have to make do with sub-par options like Shadow Claw and Phantom Force. Shadow Bone has a less powerful secondary effect than Decidueye’s Spirit Shackle, but it certainly compares favourably to, say, Golurk’s Iron Fist-boosted Shadow Punch. Long story short: Alolan Marowak has an expanded physical movepool compared to its Kantonian cousin, retains access to Marowak’s best feature (the Thick Club) and has a type combination which is stronger on offence (because, just like Raichu, it now gets to add its same-type bonus to more attacks) and arguably just as good on defence. This one’s pretty clearly a winner.
Alolan Exeggutor is… well, it’s… it’s very tall. Really, just tremendously tall. Can probably see, truly, all kinds of things, from an extremely unfair distance. And it has an extra head on its tail that can bite and snap independently, which is just… fantastic value for money, when you think about it. Alola is supposedly “the best environment” for Exeggutor because of its bright sunlight, and the Alolan people claim that this is what Exeggutor are supposed to look like – that the shorter Kantonian ones are actually stunted from lack of light and nutrients. The slightly weird thing is that Exeggutor is already based on a coconut palm. You could have put Kantonian Exeggutor in Alola as-is, and I would have thought that was perfectly appropriate and thematic. But there is this image of towering, swaying coconut palms that we associate with tropical island paradises, and a standard Exeggutor just… isn’t quite that, so we need the comical giraffe-neck and some kind of justification for its existence.
The added height isn’t the only thing that’s different about Alolan Exeggutor: according to Moon Version, “it outgrew its reliance on psychic powers, while within it awakened the power of the sleeping dragon.” Whatever that means. The real-world context of this is that there is a type of palm tree which is known as a “dragon tree”: Dracaena marginata, Dracaena draco and Dracaena cinnabari all go by this name, and are native mainly to Madagascar, the Canary Islands and Socotra, respectively (not Hawai‘i, but… eh, they’re still tropical islands, and Hawai‘i has palm trees too). Botanically they’re not true palm trees, but they look the part. I am… maybe 60% sure that someone at Game Freak simply realised this, thought “oh my god; yes; dragon tree Exeggutor” and figured they could hand-wave the transition to Dragon-type with some vague Pokédex bull$#!t, which… y’know what, honestly, more power to ‘em. The backstory to “dragon trees,” by the way, is that their resin can be processed into a bright red pigment that was known in antiquity as “dragon’s blood.” There is this fantastic bit of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, 33.38, where he mistakenly believes that this pigment is made from literal dragon blood, which has to be collected when a dragon is crushed to death beneath a dying elephant (elephants, as all educated people know, are the mortal enemies of dragons and will fight them whenever they meet, invariably leading to the deaths of both animals). This tells us nothing about Alolan Exeggutor, but you clearly needed to know it.
(Aside: I’m calling the original one the “Kantonian” form and I’m gonna keep doing that because it’s more or less the standard term, but also I don’t think Exeggcute and Exeggutor naturally live wild in Kanto? We should probably call it a “Johtoan” form)
(Come to think of it, I’m not altogether sure where Cubone and Marowak are originally from either, but let’s not try too hard to unpack that one)
So, anyway, sunlight is important here… but sunlight isn’t just sunlight. We’re in Alola, which means that sunlight is the divine radiance of the legendary Pokémon of the region, of Solgaleo, of the Blinding One Necrozma, ultimately the infinite light of all creation. Light is a deeply significant motif of this region’s plot and weird backstory shenanigans. Meanwhile, Dragon Pokémon (in my head, because of something a Blackthorn Gym trainer said all the way back in Gold and Silver) are sacred Pokémon with a special connection to life force, and here we can potentially make some hay of the fact that Necrozma too is a Dragon-type in its radiant Ultra form. It’s also interesting that Alolan Exeggutor specifically don’t get the Chlorophyll ability, when Kantonian Exeggutor do (there’s… arguably balance reasons for this, but not great ones). If you were so inclined, you could well suggest that Alolan Exeggutor don’t rely on the sun for biochemical energy via photosynthesis, the way normal Grass Pokémon do, but instead receive energy from the sun in a more mystical form, appropriate to a Dragon-type (sort of like the difference between the kinds of Pokémon who learn Synthesis and the kinds who learn the much rarer Morning Sun). As with Pikachu and Cubone, Exeggcute only need to be brought to Alola to evolve into Alolan Exeggutor – presumably because, as the Alolans claim, they just need to soak in that magical sunlight. Interestingly, though, we do hear that Exeggcute born in Alola are already different, even before evolving. “Although they are the same size as other Exeggcute, the ones produced [weird choice of words] in Alola are quite heavy,” because “their shells are packed full”; presumably, they must already be storing extra nutrients for their impressive evolution.
“Awakening the power of the dragon” apparently grants not just Dragon-type abilities, but a more powerful physique. The Alolan Exeggutor is slower than the Kantonian, but physically stronger, with several additional attacks that emphasise that fact (not all of them useful): Earthquake, Brick Break, Brutal Swing, Bulldoze. It also has a signature move, Dragon Hammer, where Exeggutor slams its head – on the end of its eight-metre-long neck – down on its enemies. This is a straightforward physical Dragon-type attack, and not especially powerful, but stronger than a generic Dragon Claw; I think it’s mostly here because none of the existing physical Dragon attacks particularly make sense for Exeggutor. Despite the buff to its physical attack stat, even Exeggutor’s Alolan form is still better at special attacks, and it doesn’t lose any of its special movepool – in fact, it adds Dragon Pulse and even Flamethrower, which covers several of the traditional weaknesses of both Grass and Dragon quite nicely. With the better stats and movepool, though, there might be an argument for a mixed physical/special moveset, which isn’t really justifiable for a Kantonian Exeggutor. The drop in speed, meanwhile, doesn’t matter all that much – Exeggutor was never a fast Pokémon to begin with, and being slower actually pushes it into a bracket where it starts to make sense as part of a Trick Room team. The main disadvantage of the Alolan breed is that it’s missing what is ordinarily Exeggutor’s best ability, Chlorophyll (double speed in bright sunlight) – instead, for some reason, it gets Frisk (identify an opponent’s held item when entering play). Frisk is certainly not a terrible ability; the information it gives you is rarely useful in single-player, but can be a lifesaver in competitive battles in certain specific situations. Chlorophyll, on the other hand, is a fantastic ability with the right support, and is exactly the kind of thing a slow bruiser Pokémon like Alolan Exeggutor desperately wishes it had. Broadly, Alolan Exeggutor is a more powerful and versatile Pokémon, but at least original recipe Exeggutor can keep this one specific niche.
All three of these Pokémon – Raichu, Marowak, Exeggutor – are inspired by things that are seen as iconically Hawaiian: surfing, fire dancing, palm trees (we can debate how specifically “Hawaiian” fire dancing and palm trees actually are, of course, but they clearly fit with the tropical paradise pastiche that Alola seems to be going for). In the case of Raichu and Marowak, the inspiration is cultural, which I think is meaningful for these evolutions that can happen to Pokémon who weren’t born in the region. These aren’t subspecies like Alolan Rattata or Geodude; they’re almost more like ways of life that the Pokémon adopt. You go to Alola, you immerse yourself in its traditions and ethos… you eat the magic pancakes… and you come out a different, more enlightened person, which is exactly why people travel in the real world: we all want magic pancakes (and to get a tan from magic sunlight). For Pokémon, the transformation is a bit more complete than is usually possible for us – Cubone, Pikachu and Exeggcute can all become “Alolan” even if they were born elsewhere – but, of course, Sun and Moon are a story about a kid from Kanto who moves to Alola and becomes its first Champion. Pokémon plays up the elements of cultural fusion in modern Hawai‘i in several places for its portrayal of Alola, and I think this might be another instance of that: culture can be something we’re born into, but it can also be something we adopt.