The Dark Forces from Parts Unknown whose occult powers sustain my life and strength have anointed new emissaries to convey their terrible will! By which I mean, I have two new Patreon supporters pledging $12/month, the amount required to bribe your way onto my Dark Council. The Dark Council can vote once a month on any topic (I mean, I assume Pokémon-related, but strictly speaking I suppose it doesn’t have to be) for me to write about at length, and this month I’m writing on the suggestion of Miame Irohara (thank you so much for your support!) whom I have named my new Chancellor of Fate. By the authority vested in the Council, she has requested that I write about her favourite generation I Pokémon (and some of mine as well): Staryu and Starmie.
This is actually pleasantly topical, since Staryu and Starmie are among the Pokémon who weren’t previously in Sword and Shield but have become available in the Isle of Armour expansion (reminder: even if you haven’t bought the expansion, you can still trade for Staryu, or transfer it from an earlier game via Pokémon Home), and as any veteran trainer knows, they are some seriously kickass Pokémon. If you’ve never had the pleasure of training one, maybe give this article a read, pick one up and take it for a spin (…literally). But first, let’s talk about starfish.
Starfish are echinoderms, which is a technical biology term meaning “weird as $#!t.” As echinoderms, they are distantly related to sea cucumbers (see also Pyukumuku), sea urchins (Pincurchin) and crinoids or “sea lilies” (Lileep and Cradily); like their cousins, they have existed on Earth in basically recognisable forms for hundreds of millions of years. In contrast to land vertebrates like humans, who have all kinds of complicated internal bits that will almost certainly kill us if they break down, like brains, hearts, lungs and other similarly whiny and demanding articles of viscera, starfish have opted for an elegant simplicity of design. They have arms, which they can do without if necessary, and a stomach, which they employ mainly by vomiting it onto their prey and later retracting it once its job is done. That’s about it. You can’t do much with a setup like that, but it is very easy to fix if it breaks. Like most echinoderms, starfish have incredible regenerative powers. Most species of starfish can be literally chopped in half and are quite happy to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and keep going. This is the source of Staryu and Starmie’s famed Recover technique, which in their generation I debut was maybe the most distinctive thing about them (at the time, it was shared only by Alakazam, Mewtwo and Porygon). Different species of starfish have different degrees of this ability – a few can regrow an entire new starfish from just a fragment of one arm, but most starfish can only regenerate if a respectable chunk of their central disc is intact. Staryu and Starmie appear to be examples of the second type, and lose their rapid regeneration ability if they suffer severe damage to the jewels at their cores. Like lizards shedding their tails, starfish can drop an arm voluntarily (if the word “voluntarily” has any meaning when applied to an animal without a brain) and leave it behind if they need to escape from predators, regrowing it later whenever it’s convenient. Some species can also split themselves in half to reproduce – which might be what Staryu and Starmie do as well; after all, they’re genderless Pokémon, so the games’ breeding mechanics leave us with no clue how they reproduce in the wild (most real starfish species have male and female individuals, although some are hermaphrodites).
Starfish are also the clearest example of another distinctive feature of the echinoderms as a whole: as adults, they tend to have radial symmetry, rather than the lateral symmetry common to more complex animals. They don’t have a left side and a right side that build off a central column of spinal goop with a top end and a bottom end; instead they branch outward in multiple directions from a core (although this isn’t always obvious – sea cucumbers have both radial and lateral symmetry in different structures of their bodies). Five-fold symmetry is by far the most common, which for a starfish means five arms, equally spaced, although there are starfish with more: six, seven, eight, nine; and the more arms a species has, the more variation there is within the species, so individuals may have different numbers. Our friend the crown-of-thorns starfish, the inspiration for Mareanie and Toxapex, can have over twenty arms. Staryu just has five, which Starmie doubles to ten. The radial body structure gives starfish a very weird, alien, almost abstract appearance; they’re unlike most land animals in a very obvious and recognisable way. Staryu and Starmie build on that with features that seem geometric rather than naturalistic: evenly spaced triangular arms, the brooch-like golden casing with ribs that are also regularly spaced but in a different number to the arms, and the bright red jewel in the centre, a spherical cabochon for Staryu and a faceted octagon for Starmie. Staryu and Starmie are also the only Pokémon in generations I and II – almost the only Pokémon ever – with no clearly defined facial features at all. All of this seems deliberately calculated to make these Pokémon feel alien, different, out of place; they even seem a little artificial, like pieces of jewellery, more so even than some “mechanical” Pokémon like Magneton. It’s great design, but it does backfire on them a little in the anime. There’s never really been an episode about Staryu or Starmie; they got a lot of screentime in the Kanto series as Misty’s signature Pokémon, but because they’re so weird and difficult to empathise with, the show doesn’t care much about her relationship with them (giving the most time to Pokémon she catches after joining Ash). It’s also rare that we get to see her use Starmie, because whenever she calls for it, she usually gets Psyduck instead.
Staryu and Starmie are some of the first Pokémon, alongside Clefairy and Clefable, with a connection to outer space. The nature and meaning of that connection has always been kept extremely vague (Starmie’s species designation is literally “the Mysterious Pokémon”). They’re star-shaped Pokémon based on real star-shaped animals, so it makes sense that they’d have something to do with stars, but what exactly? The games compare the sight of a large group of Staryu floating in the ocean to a night sky full of twinkling stars, and legends claim that Staryu are born from stardust falling from the heavens (and, again, they’re genderless Pokémon, so it’s anyone’s guess how you get more of them; for all we know this might be true). At night, they float near the surface of the sea and flash their glowing cores, which the Pokédex believes is some form of communication with the stars. Unlike the more famously alien Clefairy and Elgyem, Staryu and Starmie have never had an anime episode that elaborates on this, and it doesn’t obviously map to any trait of real starfish, so beyond what the Pokédex explains, it’s pretty wide open. I’m tempted to interpret the lines about “stardust falling from the heavens” to mean that their cores are made from some kind of meteoric ore, whose special properties are responsible for their incredible powers. Maybe the first Staryu – which, like real starfish, were probably very ancient – evolved from microorganisms that grew around pieces of this ore and fed on it. According to Ultra Sun, Starmie’s core “can be made into high-priced accessories that are traded in secret,” so it’s definitely a valuable substance. Why in secret, though? Is it because you had to kill a Starmie to make a piece of tacky jewellery, and no one who found out about it would ever speak to you again? Is this the Pokémon world’s equivalent of the ivory trade? Or is it more of an occult thing, where Starmie is associated with alien conspiracy theories and mysterious powers? If those gems are inorganic materials, first incorporated by Staryu’s ancestors millions of years ago, that carry their own magical properties, maybe they retain their ability to catalyse psychic powers even after the Pokémon is long dead…
Aside from their ability to rapidly heal from injuries, Staryu and Starmie are probably best known for their speed. In the anime, and according to the Pokédex, Staryu and Starmie swim (and even fly short distances) by spinning their radially-symmetric bodies like propellers. In the games, this is represented by the Rapid Spin attack, a very useful move which was introduced in generation II and remains exclusive to perhaps two dozen Pokémon even today. Real starfish are… less agile. Although they’re marine animals, I’m not even sure it’s really accurate to say that adult starfish can “swim”; at best they sort of flounce along, just above the sea floor. But what else is shaped like a star and spins rapidly through the air? Well… how about shuriken? Shuriken, or properly shashuriken (“wheel” shuriken, as opposed to bōshuriken, which are more like straight darts), are thin disc-, star- or cross-shaped blades that were common in Edo period Japan as sidearms, used as either daggers or throwing knives. In English they’re often called “ninja stars” because of the distinctive star shape, although historically they were not exclusive to ninja and were also used by samurai and ordinary soldiers. Much like the Rapid Spin technique in Pokémon, shuriken are usually not good weapons for dealing a killing blow, on account of being so small and light, but have a great deal of utility – they’re easy to conceal and very useful for distracting an opponent. Historical shuriken are most commonly four-pointed, but five-, six-, eight- and ten-pointed ones are all well-attested, and five-pointed shuriken seem to be fairly common today, so the five- and ten-pointed Staryu and Starmie fit right in.
Turning now to the in-game properties of the Mysterious Pokémon, Starmie is just one of those Pokémon that has never really been bad. In the generation I games, it’s available fairly late but is nonetheless a great choice to take you all the way to the Pokémon League, and Misty’s Starmie in the Cerulean Gym is one of the game’s more obvious difficulty spikes, showing up long before most of your Pokémon will have evolved to comparable levels of power. It has also sat pretty consistently in the upper tiers of competitive Pokémon in every game since the very beginning, thanks to a solid stat distribution, a vicious special attack movepool, access to Rapid Spin and some powerful abilities. It remains a really solid choice in single player in practically every game it appears in, with a forgiving playstyle and access to Recover. Starmie doesn’t have the raw power of some other elite special attackers like Volcarona or Magnezone, but it’s plenty strong, and really fast. Along with a decent core attack combo of Surf/Hydro Pump and Psychic (or Psyshock to hit special walls like Chansey and Blissey, or Sylveon), Starmie can take Ice Beam, Thunderbolt, Flash Cannon, Dazzling Gleam, Power Gem or Grass Knot. Obviously you can only fit a maximum of four of those moves into one set, but that’s still enough to give any opponent a serious headache trying to figure out which of their Pokémon can safely try to block your Starmie – and the classic core of Surf, Psychic, Thunderbolt and Ice Beam has been available ever since Starmie’s very first appearance back in Red and Blue (although you can use Blizzard instead of Ice Beam in those games, because – fun fact – in generation I, Blizzard is 90% accurate!). But that isn’t all Starmie can do, and part of its strength is its flexibility.
Starmie isn’t by any means a tank, but it’s surprisingly tough and it can take a dedicated support role, and has a pretty impressive support movepool. There are a lot of Water Pokémon out there who are much more resilient than Starmie, but not all of them get Recover or an equivalent, and thanks to the Natural Cure ability Starmie can easily shrug off paralysis, poison and sleep. Rapid Spin is an obvious choice for a utility Starmie; its ability to sweep away Spikes, Stealth Rocks, Toxic Spikes and Sticky Webs remains just as vital in the world of competitive Pokémon as it always has been (unlike in the bad old days of generations IV and V, you can use Defog for this, but Defog will also clear your entry hazards, which Rapid Spin won’t). Like most Water-types, Starmie can also switch to Scald as its primary damage-dealing move if it wants to take a support role, which makes it especially deadly to physical attackers who risk being crippled if it lands a burn with Scald. The new tutor move from the Isle of Armour, Flip Turn, is just a slightly weaker Water-type U-Turn; because it’s a physical attack, Starmie won’t do much damage with it, but the ability to switch out after attacking is so powerful it might be worth trying out anyway.
Thunder Wave is available, but Starmie doesn’t need paralysis to outrun most opponents and values burns from Scald more highly. Reflect and Light Screen are both on its list, as is the more niche Cosmic Power – defence boosts usually aren’t very good in competitive games because there are so many ways to circumvent them, but if there’s any Pokémon who might actually want Cosmic Power, it’s Starmie, who also gets Recover. It can learn Trick Room, and I guess I can’t tell you not to use Trick Room Starmie, but its own very high speed stat makes it generally a poor choice for a Trick Room team. Much more interesting is Gravity, available through the Ultra SMoon move tutors. Gravity is a field effect that increases the accuracy of all moves and grounds Flying or Levitating Pokémon; it’s tricky to use, but is a powerful enabler for several very strong attacks – two of which, Blizzard and Thunder, are on Starmie’s move list. Trick is a nice utility move that can mess up an opposing supporter by forcing them to hold a Choice item; Starmie is an ideal Pokémon to carry Choice Specs into the start of a battle, blast away for a few turns, then hand them off to something that doesn’t want them. Ally Switch lets you swap places with your partner in a double battle, messing up your opponent’s targeting. Finally, Starmie is one of only eight Pokémon, two of them legendary, that can learn Reflect Type (but only in generations V-VII, so you’ll need to transfer a Staryu if you want this move in Sword and Shield): a move that changes the user’s type to match the target’s. This… is a weird technique, and it can mess with Starmie as well by breaking its same-type bonus on its core Water and Psychic attacks, but it’s such an unusual move that it’s worth mentioning anyway, and I can definitely imagine situations where it improves your matchup, since a lot of Pokémon resist their own attacks. Just watch out for Ghost- and Dragon-types, who are weak to their own moves.
Natural Cure, which heals status ailments like paralysis and poison, is arguably Starmie’s best ability choice in a support role. Together with Recover, it makes you very difficult to shut down. Starmie’s other regular ability, Illuminate, does nothing in battle and, to be honest, isn’t all that useful out of battle either; it’s a strong contender for the worst ability in the game. Fortunately, Starmie’s hidden ability is much stronger, and probably the better choice if you want it playing offence. This ability, Analytic, increases the power of all attacks by 30% if the Starmie is the last Pokémon to move on that turn. Considering how fast Starmie is, that seems at first like a poor ability that will almost never trigger, and much more useful for Porygon-2 and Beheeyem, who also get Analytic. Importantly, though, if your opponent switches Pokémon, then they will be considered to have acted before Starmie on that turn, and it will get an Analytic boost. 30% extra power on all attacks against Pokémon switching into play is hugely dangerous on a Pokémon who already has a special attack movepool as versatile as Starmie’s. Even if you think your Pokémon could take Starmie in a straight fight, switching in against it is much, much harder.
Starmie’s basic strategies haven’t changed very much since the introduction of Rapid Spin in Gold and Silver. New special attacks and weird support moves have expanded its movepool over time, but it’s basically the same Pokémon, doing the same things, as it was twenty years ago – kind of like a real starfish, persevering with an efficient, tried-and-true form for hundreds of millions of years. Staryu and Starmie’s appeal as Pokémon designs is equally enduring, standing out for their sheer weirdness as two of, frankly, the most un-Pokémon-like Pokémon that, by virtue of belonging to generation I, get to define what a Pokémon is. Now that they’re back after their brief hiatus in the limbo of Pokémon Home, I plan on getting to know Staryu and Starmie all over again.
Thanks again to Miame Irohara for the generous donation to the cause. If you enjoy what I do and have some money to spare, consider making a contribution; every little helps, and even $1 per month will earn you
privileged status when I ultimately take over the world and rule as a dark and terrible god for the rest of time my eternal gratitude.