Leo M. R. asks:

So, last time we talked a little bit about signature Pokémon and how (ever since Ruby/Sapphire) most Gym Leaders’/Elite Four members’/Champions’ signatures are always newly-introduced Pokémon. Let’s talk about that more. I’m of two minds about this paradigm.

On the one hand, I do think new generations *should* showcase new Pokémon in major battles, since that is the major draw of new Pokémon games. On the other hand, I feel like it’s gotten to the point where Game Freak design certain Pokémon specifically to fit a particular character they’ve come up with, regardless of the Pokémon’s own merits. XY was particularly bad with this: Vivillon was the only new Bug-type introduced in Gen VI and half of its raison d’être was just to be Viola’s signature. I would argue a similar case for Heliolisk/Clemont, Avalugg/Wulfric, and to a lesser extent Pyroar/Lysandre. SwSh may have begun moving away from this somewhat, but I still get the same impression with Drednaw/Nessa, Centiskorch/Kabu, Coalossal/Gordie, Alcremie/Opal, and like the entirety of Bede’s teams. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those are badly-designed Pokémon necessarily; I’m just saying it seems to me they only exist to be the signatures of their respective Trainers, and not much else. What are your thoughts?

I’m not sure I’m following, sorry… what is it about those Pokémon that makes you think they were created specifically to be partners for those trainers? I mean, Vivillon is in X and Y to be the obligatory regional early-game Bug Pokémon, and to have its special gimmick where it has different wing patterns depending on your real life region, as part of Pokémon’s ongoing desire to show off how global and international it is. I honestly don’t think those are great reasons for Vivillon to exist, but they’re more specific and obvious reasons than a lot of Pokémon have, and there’s nothing about Viola that makes me think Vivillon was made for her specifically. For those other Pokémon… well, where are you getting this? I mean, Clemont has a pretty prominent invention/machinery theme – other than simply being an Electric-type, Heliolisk is not at all what I’d expect to see if someone created a Pokémon specifically to be his partner. It has the solar energy theme, I guess? I can believe the reverse – that the character designers gave Clemont that… sun-shaped… ray-gun… thing… that he has, after deciding that he’d use a Heliolisk – but Clemont-first-then-Heliolisk doesn’t ring true to me. Wulfric and Lysandre I buy a bit more, because Avalugg fits Wulfric’s “colossal Nordic iceberg-man” vibe and Lysandre has the Pyroar hairstyle (but also his strongest Pokémon is Gyarados, not Pyroar, which itself has obvious logic to it because the developers wanted to show off Mega Gyarados), but even then, the characters could have come after the Pokémon; Lysandre/Pyroar in particular is pretty superficial.

Then in Sword and Shield, well… Nessa’s a glamorous model, and Drednaw is a big, cronchy, ornery brute of a Pokémon. Opal is an actress whose gym is a theatre, and Alcremie is whipped cream that evolves into a cake. Kabu is a stoic, serious-looking middle aged martial artsy dude, and Centiskorch is… Centiskorch. That doesn’t mean those pairings can’t work, or can’t say anything about the characters, but I really struggle to see the line of thought that starts with concept art of Nessa and ends with creating Drednaw. Coalossal/Gordie fits well enough, but Coalossal also has such obvious thematic reasons for existing in Galar that I don’t think I could ever be persuaded it was made for Gordie; it’s from a part of the region that mines coal, and the coal industry was a huge part of the British industrial revolution, which was a defining moment in the history of Britain. For Bede I can see what you’re getting at because it’s striking that Hatterene and Rapidash both have the Psychic –> Fairy/Psychic progression (and in my opinion it’s kind of a weird choice for Ponyta and Rapidash). On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any story reason Bede’s original type specialisation needed to be Psychic (in fact, I’m not even sure any dialogue in the game ever mentions that he’s a Psychic trainer?), and Galarian Rapidash and Hatterene are both Pokémon that independently make sense in a British region, so again I think it’s just as plausible that Hatterene was already there and Bede’s storyline was adjusted to fit.

I’m also not sure that I think it would even be a bad thing, if it were true? If we were talking about almost any other game, I would probably say “yes, of course the monsters should be shaped to fit the boss fights they’ll appear in and the characters who’ll be working with them; that’s just obviously good design.” And, well, Pokémon is sort of its own thing, true; its creatures are supposed to outlive the game and story that introduce them; they’re supposed to be “modular,” if I can put it that way, able to form part of a player’s party, able to be dropped into a range of areas or future games without all that much thought. You can’t tailor a Pokémon to be part of a specific boss fight the way you could with a monster in another game, because every Pokémon has to be able to do more than that (the closest to this that I can think of in a Pokémon game is the way Wishiwashi slots into the structure of Lana’s trial in Sun and Moon, but I suspect that was the other way around; the trial was built for Wishiwashi, not vice versa). But ultimately, I think there are worse reasons to create a Pokémon than “we thought of this character we really like and we want a really good partner for them.” If the design’s good in other respects and feels like a believable part of the world – and I don’t see why a Pokémon made with a particular character in mind couldn’t be – then more power to ’em.

[This question was promoted to the front of the queue because the submitter is supporting me for at least $4/month on Patreon!  If you enjoy my writing and like getting my answers to cosmic dilemmas like this one – or just think I deserve something nice for my work – consider visiting https://www.patreon.com/pokemaniacal and signing up!]

20 thoughts on “Leo M. R. asks:

  1. Okay, rereading what I wrote made me realize that I may not have chosen the clearest of words to get my point across… I think I used the word “design” more loosely than how you seem to have interpreted it. That’s on me, my apologies! Let me try to clarify:

    So I think what you’re talking about is more “theme” specifically, on which I’d agree with you. Milotic is way more themed on Wallace than Drednaw is Nessa (though I also don’t think Milotic was designed with Wallace in mind). But by “design” I didn’t mean theme necessarily; just the general… conception process of specific Pokémon. Does that make sense? Let’s use a tangible example: Game Freak decides they want to have an Electric-type Gym Leader in Kalos (i.e. Clemont). Due to the aforementioned Signature Pokémon Paradigm, this decision forces them to come up with a new Electric-type Pokémon they could assign to be his signature (i.e. Heliolisk). This means that Heliolisk exists only because Clemont exists, and not because Heliolisk is a well-designed Pokémon. Whether or not Heliolisk is well-designed, and whether or not its theming matches Clemont’s, is irrelevant: the Pokémon exists because of the Trainer, not the other way around nor because of a clever idea. This rubs me the wrong way.

    Now yes, I admit this process is an assumption on my part. But the fact that they introduced no other Electric Pokémon in XY* when there’s a Gym Leader whose team could’ve utilized multiple Gen VI Electric-types kind of lends support to this idea, in my eyes. The same goes with all of the above examples: I get the feeling most, if not all, of the Pokémon I mentioned was conceived purely so that their partner Trainers could have a signature Pokémon from their gen, not because GF thought they were good or clever designs.** My question, thus, was meant to be this: do you get that same feeling and if so, what are your general thoughts?

    Sorry for the long comment, but I hope that made it clearer!

    *okay yes, there’s Dedenne, but that thing exists purely because of another one of GF’s apparently-inviolable design paradigms: Pikachu Clones, so it doesn’t count. And Clemont doesn’t even use it anyway! Instead he opted to go for… Emolga?!

    **although some of them could be good designs on their own, for reasons independent of the Signature Pokémon Paradigm.

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    1. Let me generalize my point a little more:

      A Kalosian Electric-type (that’s not a Pika-clone) needed to exist because a Kalosian Electric-type Gym Leader exists. Therefore, Heliolisk.

      A Galarian Fire-type (that’s not a starter) needed to exist because a Galarian Fire-type Gym Leader exists. Coalossal is already Gordie’s signature; therefore, Centiskorch.

      Again, I acknowledge this is my assumption. I’m just wondering if you share that assumption in any way.

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      1. Hmm… no, I don’t think I buy that either. If nothing else, I think wanting to have at least one Electric-type in a generation probably comes into play before wanting to have an Electric-type specifically to be Clemont’s partner. I mean, are we to believe in that case that Game Freak had *no* ideas for Electric, Bug *or* Ice Pokémon that they genuinely wanted to make in generation 6? And, moreover, that they were *fine* with that, and perfectly willing to just have no Pokémon of those types, until they remembered that they wanted gym leaders of those types? And why *would* they want gym leaders of those types? Why would that be important to them, if they were otherwise broadly uninterested in those types at that time? If I were in that position I think I’d just change the leaders’ types; you could make Clemont a Steel-type specialist with relatively little redesigning, Wulfric could work for Fighting, Rock or Ground, and Viola would fit just about anything. And again, like, if you’re in that position of creating Pokémon primarily because you have an already well-defined gym leader character who needs a partner of a specific type, why not design a Pokémon that fits that character more specifically? It just seems like such a weird and ass-backwards design process that I don’t think I can believe it without more direct evidence.

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        1. I suppose they did put Flint in Diamond and Pearl and forget to give him any actual Fire Pokémon to use… but that was sort of a broader problem of Sinnoh having almost no Fire-types *at all*, not just no new ones.

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          1. The Diamond/Pearl Pokédex was a mess; they added all these cool new cross-gen evolutions to older Pokémon (many of whom needed them)… and then failed to put these Pokémon in the region! Like… what were you even doing, Game Freak?!

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        2. Mmm, I hear you. But it’s kind of odd then (at least to me) that they would make a Gym Leader specialize in a type that only has one new Pokémon of that type added in that particular generation. Like, all that does is highlight how lacking in that type the new batch of Pokémon is, and maybe this is just me, but that feels like a negative for games whose main appeal is varied team composition. Yes, it would be an ass-backwards design process but it’s not like Game Freak doesn’t already conceive certain Pokémon based solely on predetermined meta-parameters (aside from the obvious ones, I’d argue the pseudo-legendaries count), so I don’t think we can put it past them to have such a bizarre design process.

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              1. Granted, I’m pretty sure that was because they didn’t want to overlap with the type specializations from the first generation leaders (a choice validated when an outside contractor freed up enough cartridge space to add those leaders to the game). That left only one type able to be left unrepresented, starting a long tradition of the Dark-type getting shafted.

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  2. This is kinda unrelated but I suspect Onix was made in gen 1 to be an ideal “first boss” Pokemon for Brock and show off Bide. Despite being a fully evolved Pokemon at the time and having a character design that looks huge and intimidating, it has a pretty poor base stat total, since you’re supposed to fight it when all your guys are like level 12. All its stats are crap except for Defense because it’s just meant to use Bide.

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    1. That statline is actively terrible with Bide; what you want is high HP and low defenses, while Onix has the reverse.

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  3. My impression is the opposite – that those Pokémon became signatures simply because they were available.

    If they designed Pokémon specifically to be signatures for the Gym Leaders, I’d hope they’d make sure that each region had powerful and like, Special(TM) Pokémon of the relevant types to work with. Even more for the Elite Four – regional Route 1 birds Talonflame and Toucannon, or decidedly mediocre Xatu and Alolan Dugtrio don’t seem very elite…

    (I can totally see Centiskorch being designed for Kabu, though! It’s a perfect match.)

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    1. To be fair, in gen VI Talonflame was pretty elite. Well, it _can_ be; Malva’s just isn’t.

      I’d like to know your thought process as to why you think Centiskorch is perfect for Kabu! I’m thinking… legs?

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      1. On a conceptual level: Kabu’s other two Pokémon, Ninetales and Arcanine, debuted in Kanto, and they’re both based on decidedly Eastern folklore – kitsune and lion-dogs. Centiskorch is ostensibly Galarian, but might be a reference to the Omukade. And more loosely, its design (to me at least) is evocative of an Eastern dragon, especially in its Gigantamax form (though the Fire-type is somewhat nonsensical in this regard). So it sort of gives Kabu a “theme” to his team other than just “bunch of Fire types”. Although this would work well by itself, what makes me think it could be intentional is because they specifically designed this Gym Leader to be from Hoenn (well, according to Bulbapedia – can’t verify that, but I vaguely remember something along those lines from in-game dialogue). It’s a kind of theme that makes sense in Galar, but would have not been a theme at all in one of the first four regions, for obvious reasons.

        But more importantly, the aesthetics of his team is just great! Out of Galar’s Gym Leaders, I think it’s the character designs and “personalities” (to the extent they get to have any) of… Kabu, Opal, Melony and a lesser extent Nessa that stood out to me. Of these, I think it’s only Kabu whose team did a good job of representing their leader, so to say. Kabu’s made out to be sort of a badass, formidable trainer and notable even among the Gym Leaders. His Pokémon are all formidable and badass in turn, and even better, they’re all distinct forms of it: Ninetales has the understated, “elegant but don’t mess with me” kind of intimidation factor, Arcanine’s the majestic kind, and Centiskorch is well… an enormous serpentine bug: menacing and elegant but both in ways entirely different to Ninetales.

        It makes for a really pleasing gym battle, IMO. I also like that his team consists of two 2-stage mammals, crowned by one 2-stage arthropod (if say, Arcanine was his signature and Centiskorch was in the middle, I’d like his team a bit less for this reason).

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        1. Huh, that’s a neat way to look at it! Yes, Kabu is canonically from Hoenn, so I suppose it would make sense to look at his team as being Eastern-influenced. Personally Centiskorch doesn’t evoke Eastern dragon imagery to me, but I can see where you’d get that from. I take your point with the “different kinds of formidable/badass” though, and I see what you mean with the mammal, mammal, arthropod pattern. Having two gen I canids be followed up by a gen VIII arthropod ensures a massive contrast between the first two and the final.* I appreciate his team a lot more now; thanks!

          Oh, the bit with the legs is mostly because Kabu’s look is clearly influenced by football (association football, what North Americans call soccer) and… Centiskorch definitely has the legs for it! 😛

          *technically Nessa’s team does the same thing with a pattern of fish, fish, terrapin… but I just can’t get behind Drednaw at all. And fish don’t exist anyway.

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          1. Ha 😛 (Why do North Americans call their thing football to begin with? Never understood it. It looks like rugby to me, but I know very little about sports.)
            I actually kinda like Drednaw as the signature and finisher of Nessa’s team of uh… ray-finned fish, ray-finned fish, tetrapod. It’s a nice contrast between trainer and Pokémon, visually, and maybe Drednaw mirror’s Nessa’s personality instead.

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            1. They changed up the rules a bunch to make it more viable as a spectator sport, so the purists would pitch a fit if they tried to keep calling it rugby. Would YOU want rugby purists upset at you? Didn’t think so.

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