Champions of the Pokémon League, (Belated) Part 7: Iris

Original recipe Iris, in the relatively simple clothes she wears in Black and White.

As odd a time as this is to be talking about Iris, my next post is going to be on Diantha, which would otherwise make Iris the only Champion I haven’t written about, having discussed all the previous ones about two years ago now, a possibility that makes me feel a little twinge of unfairness in my normally blackened iron heart.  For the sake of completeness, then, let’s give some thought to the fifth generation games’ portrayal of the dragon master Iris, our second female and first dark-skinned Champion (yay diversity!).

Iris first shows up when the player reaches Castelia City in Black and White, where she enthusiastically volunteers to be Bianca’s bodyguard after the latter’s Munna is abducted, and takes part in the standoff with Team Plasma.  She is here portrayed as passionate and firm in her convictions, reacting with anger and dismay when she learns of Team Plasma’s theft and bewilderment when the rest of the group agrees to let Ghetsis and his minions leave without a fight, but is also extremely ready to help people in need, and perhaps a little naïve (Burgh suggests that Iris will need Bianca’s help finding her way around the huge city as much as Bianca will need Iris’s protection).  On White, Iris is subsequently revealed to be the Gym Leader of the ancient, traditionalist version of Opelucid City; on Black (and I say this as a player of Black version) one is rather left wondering what the point of her is supposed to be.  In both games, she also helps Drayden narrate of the story of Reshiram and Zekrom.  Since they’re both Gym Leaders of Opelucid City, it makes sense to look at Drayden in Black and White as something of a foil to Iris.  Compared to her older mentor, Iris stands out for her excitable speech patterns, liberally peppered with exclamation marks, and her emotional, evocative language.  Both are idealistic, but Iris is much more liberal in showing it.  On Black, the Opelucid Gym gives Drayden, as its leader, the epithet “the Spartan Mayor,” announcing him to be hardworking, physically strong and austere, as well as reminding challengers of the respect he commands as Mayor of Opelucid City (also, almost uniquely for these titles, it makes no reference to his elemental specialisation).  On White, where Iris is the Gym Leader, she is referred to as “the Girl Who Knows the Hearts of Dragons,” a description that focuses instead on her capacity for empathy and intuition, her deep connection with one of the most mysterious Pokémon types, and possibly her raw talent as a Pokémon trainer.  It may also be worth comment, in connection with Iris’ characterisation as energetic and youthful, that the only difference between the teams they deploy as Gym Leaders (aside from the gender of their Pokémon – Drayden’s are male; Iris’s are female) is which abilities their Druddigon possess; Drayden’s has Rough Skin, reflecting endurance and severity, while Iris’s has Sheer Force, suggestive of potency and vitality.  A minor difference, but when everything else about their Pokémon is kept the same, one little change feels that much more purposeful.  Even the city itself may contribute.  Drayden is the Gym Leader of a futuristic, technologically advanced Opelucid City, the result of industrious dedication to progress, while Iris’ Opelucid City is peaceful, quiet and very traditional, in keeping with her emphasis on closeness to Pokémon and nature (though her ‘nature girl’ traits, it must be said, are much less noticeable than in her anime incarnation).

Iris in the extravagant, flowing dress she wears as Champion of the Unova League.

At some point before the events of Black and White 2, Iris replaces Alder as Unova’s Champion.  As it did for Wallace in Hoenn, this apparently occasions a change of costume, with Iris’ relatively plain beige sweater being replaced by a frilled pink dress like something out of a fairy tale (appropriately enough, given her specialisation), complete with a golden, emerald-studded tiara.  We first encounter her, again, in Castelia City.  She retains her desire to help people in need, immediately volunteering to assist in your search for Team Plasma despite her belief that they are no longer a threat – but in a pointed contrast to her last appearance suggestive of her greater experience and maturity, she now appears to know the city very well, and is immediately able to direct the player to the most likely site of any suspicious activity, namely the Castelia Sewers.  She does very little else in that game, however, appearing again only in Opelucid City for a brief and not especially revealing conversation about Drayden (if nothing else, we learn here that although she calls Drayden ‘grandpa,’ they aren’t actually related).  At the time of Black and White 2, Iris was the only Champion since Blue not to take an active role in fighting the primary villains (she is now joined by Diantha), which, given her keen interest in the legends of Reshiram and Zekrom, is baffling.  Her initial scepticism at the possibility of a Team Plasma comeback goes some way towards explaining this, but the flying battleship shelling Opelucid City with ice cannons must have been one hell of a wakeup call.  Having said that, I’m not sure what her presence would have added other than opportunities for characterisation – unlike Alder, whose own personal flaws and troubled past complicate his opposition to Team Plasma, Iris’s involvement in that plot would have been fairly straightforward, so in some ways it’s perhaps better that she wasn’t there to take the spotlight from Hugh.

Probably the most interesting bit of characterisation Iris gets in Black and White 2 is not actually in the events of the games themselves but through a Memory Link scene (if you’re not familiar with these, they’re scenes which take place between the original Black and White and the sequels, which you can only view if your Black 2 or White 2 game is associated with the same Global Link account as a Black or White game which has completed certain parts of the storyline).  In Opelucid City, you can hear from Drayden about how Iris became his student and eventually the Champion – a position she has apparently been groomed for by Drayden since she first came to Unova as his successor.  In fact, having the opportunity to challenge Alder and become Champion was apparently her condition for leaving her home in the distant Village of Dragons, hinting at ambition, vigour, and possibly (as we’ve already seen from her) a touch of naïveté about the magnitude of this goal, though it appears she was an exceptionally talented trainer even before she met Drayden.  The fact that Alder, in consultation with Drayden, apparently chose his successor is interesting, although it appears that actually defeating him was still a requirement for Iris to take up the position and, far from considering it a formality, Alder actually put himself through a special training regimen (“ghastly,” according to Drayden) to prepare himself for this final duty, intent on pushing Iris to her limit.  Now that she’s there, Iris declares that her mission as Champion will be to help people and Pokémon continue to grow ever closer (a pledge that is not without resonance in the overarching themes of the fifth generation).  We also see in this flashback that the enormous pink dress Iris wears as the Champion was actually Drayden’s idea, a gift from him upon the completion of her training; now that she’s the Champion, he tells her, it’s okay to dress up – her hard work has earned her the right to a little frivolity now and then.

Iris' astronomically-inspired throne room.

When we finally meet Iris again in the palace of the Elite Four and battle her for the championship, the game pulls out all the stops.  Not only is Iris’ chamber particularly spectacular in comparison to those of past champions, with a huge throne in the shape of a dragon silhouette and a rotating circular backdrop apparently meant to represent the planets in orbit around the sun, the battle scene itself is marked by eye-catching streaks of rainbow light flashing across a twilight background.  The battle scenery of X and Y, of course, put it all to shame, but it was quite spectacular compared to everything that had preceded it, making the battle with Iris a unique and memorable one.  Nor does Iris herself let us down.  The game designers, apparently ashamed at their decision to neuter Ghetsis’ Hydreigon with a bizarre physical attacker moveset, have Iris open with a proper special attacker Hydreigon, as deadly a foe as any you’re likely to face in this game.  The rest of her team illustrates nicely that it’s quite easy to design a varied and balanced line-up for a Dragon master, simply because there are so many ‘dragon’ Pokémon who aren’t actually Dragon-with-a-capital-D Pokémon.  Iris uses three of them: Aggron, Lapras and Archeops.  Lapras ensures that she has an answer to Water- and Ice-type Pokémon who think they can sweep her team with Ice attacks, while Aggron covers up her defensive weakness to opposing Dragon Pokémon, and Archeops is simply vicious, and even carries Endeavour to help compensate for the Defeatist ability that normally renders him harmless when his health is low.  Druddigon would be the weakest member of her team, but the designers apparently realised this and gave him a Life Orb (making him the only member of her team aside from her partner to use a held item) so as to abuse the way Life Orb and Sheer Force work together – Sheer Force negates Life Orb recoil damage, but only on attacks that Sheer Force applies to normally.  Finally her partner, a Pokémon that needs no introduction, is a Dragon Dance Haxorus, complete with an Earthquake that can bring down even Levitating Pokémon thanks to Mold Breaker.  With the possible exception of Lapras, all of Iris’ Pokémon and their movesets are ones which emphasise overwhelming force; no stalling Spiritomb, Recover-spamming Milotic or defence-buffing Vanilluxe for her (even her Lapras exploits its powerful special movepool in preference to, say, a more sedate and arguably more effective Rest/Sleep Talk strategy).  Iris is all about enthusiasm and passion, and her first priority is to jump right in and blast away from start to finish.

Iris may still be an AI trainer, but as AI trainers go, she’s very much at the top of her game.  As a character, she has an odd relationship with the story, spending as little time directly interacting with it as possible but managing to snatch a fair bit of characterisation anyway, courtesy of the greater screen time Black and White gave to most of their Gym Leaders.  Her beliefs and goals as Champion also make a very clear statement about the central theme of the games – whether humans should become closer with Pokémon or move further apart.  While I remain a bigger fan of Alder and Cynthia, she’s a neat character, and has little trouble stepping into the larger-than-life boots of her predecessors.  Will her successor, Diantha, measure up?  Only one way to find out…

Champions of the Pokémon League, Part 1: Blue

Happy New Year!  Now, let’s get cracking!  I still have no clue what I’m going to fill 2012 with, so please do leave suggestions if you have any (I’ve fiddled with the settings, by the way, so that people who don’t have a Google account or whatever should be able to comment), but for now I can probably waste a good two weeks talking about some of the most important NPCs of the Pokémon series: the League Champions, starting with our dear sweet old-time rival, Blue.
Gods, Blue was a douche.
This guy is probably the most obnoxious character not only in the series but in the whole damn franchise, in all its incarnations, beating out Charon from Platinum Version, Jessie’s Wobuffet from the TV show, Aria from Pokémon Ranger, the Gengar from Mystery Dungeon Red and Blue, and even bloody Imakuni? from the Gameboy adaptation of the trading card game.  As everyone probably remembers, Blue turns up to fight you a number of times over the course of the game, with the encounters generally following a fairly predictable pattern: Blue appears, insults you, makes wild assertions about your incompetence as a trainer and Pokédex-holder, challenges you to a battle, loses, acts as though he had just beaten you, insults you again, and then leaves.  He shows no sign of character development, remaining the same unlikable jerk throughout the game, thus providing a gradually accumulating motivation for you to stomp his smug face into the dirt when you battle for the last time at the Indigo Plateau.  It’s not even that he dislikes you in particular; he’s just a bad person.  During the Team Rocket takeover of Silph Co., when you step in to rescue the terrified employees from the marauding gangsters and keep the Master Ball out of Giovanni’s hands, Blue turns up in the Silph office building near the teleport panel that leads to the president’s room.  He’s not there to help; he’s there because he saw you in Saffron City and thought “hey, I’d better have a battle with ol’ snot-breath over there!”  Forget the chaos going on all around him; forget the innocent men and women trapped in their offices; forget the lunacy Team Rocket could accomplish with the Master Ball prototype; Blue isn’t going to do anything about that!  He’s far too busy slinging insults at his rival!  He also never makes any references to his Pokémon as anything other than those things he’s going to beat you with; he’s not an abusive master like Silver but he doesn’t really seem to care much about his Pokémon either, and eventually gets called out on it by his own grandfather, Professor Oak, after losing to you at the Indigo Plateau.
Three years later, in Gold and Silver, Blue returns to haunt us, having replaced Giovanni as the Gym Leader of Viridian City and guardian of the Earth Badge.  He has apparently never tried to reclaim his former position from the current Champion, Lance; I can only suppose that, in keeping with his usual policy of declaring that anyone who beats him is a loser, he has decided the title wasn’t worth having anyway.  When you meet him on Cinnabar Island, he seems to have developed quite the philosophical streak over the past three years and may even have undergone something resembling character development.  Then again, he might just still be sullen over losing his title; it’s hard to say.  He’s still an inconsiderate jerk, spending weeks at a time away from his gym and thus preventing trainers from challenging him, on the grounds that most Pokémon trainers in Kanto are so far beneath him anyway.  It takes a personal request from a trainer with all seven of the other Kanto badges just to drag him away from his new favourite pastime, staring glumly at the basalt-covered ruins of Cinnabar Island and murmuring platitudes about the power of nature to himself; he almost seems depressed when he isn’t fighting.  Incidentally, there are a couple of interesting fan theories, based on the events of the first games, that suggest Blue isn’t simply rotten to the core but rather that his general unpleasantness is due to bitterness over the events of his past.  Where are his parents, for instance?  The only family we ever see are his sister and grandfather.  If you believe the speculation, Blue’s parents are both dead – killed in the same war that Lt. Surge fought in (Kanto seems to have disproportionately few middle-aged men; the suggestion is that the whole age group was devastated by the war).  Also, what happened to his Raticate?  In a couple of early encounters, Blue has a Rattata, which later evolves into a Raticate.  The next time you see him, he’s in the Pokémon Tower, an enormous Pokémon cemetery… and doesn’t have his Raticate anymore.  He also asks you what reason you have to be there, since “your Pokémon don’t look dead”.  Hmm.  I think he’s making a joke, since he immediately continues “I can at least make them faint,” and challenges you to a battle (not exactly the actions of a mourner).  Although the implications for Blue’s character are interesting, both theories are, I think, reading too much into things; Pokémon doesn’t really ‘do’ subtlety… but that doesn’t make speculation any less entertaining.
This lovely piece is by Aragornbird (more of whose work can be found at and portrays the epic showdown between Blue and Red (who reappears in Gold and Silver as a 'bonus boss' with the team shown here)
This lovely piece is by Aragornbird (more of whose work can be found at and portrays the epic showdown between Blue and Red (who reappears in Gold and Silver as a ‘bonus boss’ with the team shown here).
Blue is actually the only “rival” character ever to become Champion, and as such his team composition varies according to the starter he chose (whichever one is strong against yours).  He always uses Pidgeot, Alakazam and Rhydon.  He has a fully evolved Venusaur, Blastoise or Charizard by this point, rounding out his team with two of Arcanine, Gyarados or Exeggutor, leaving out the one whose element matches his starter’s.  In the original games, Blue is not as dangerous an opponent as his inflated level suggests, for much the same reason as the Elite Four.  The NPC enemies are strikingly unimaginative with their movesets, each Pokémon rarely knowing any attacks besides the ones that would be used by a wild Pokémon of the same species and level… to the point that Blue’s Rhydon knows both Leer and Tail Whip (which have exactly the same effect), his Exeggutor doesn’t even have four attacks, his poor Arcanine and Pidgeot are stuck with Roar and Whirlwind (which don’t actually do anything in Red and Blue except against wild Pokémon), his Arcanine has to make do with Ember just to add insult to injury, and his Charizard, if he has one, actually uses Rage (which, due to the bizarre way it works in Red and Blue, basically confers a death sentence upon anything stupid enough to use it, ever).  He is, to be fair, a far more credible opponent in his incarnation as the Viridian Gym Leader (using Exeggutor, Gyarados, and Arcanine, with no starter Pokémon) since his Pokémon now, at least, use sensible attacks, and is further improved by the remakes of the first two generations of games; in Fire Red and Leaf Green, for instance, he eventually replaces his Pidgeot and Rhydon, hardly standout members of his team, with the far more dangerous Heracross and Tyranitar.  It’s Heart Gold and Soul Silver, though, that do something really interesting with Blue.  Gyms, of course, are normally themed around an element, with trainers in the gym predominantly using Pokémon of the same element as the leader… but Blue has no specialty element.  Gold and Silver wimped out when faced with this little disjunction and gave Blue a blandly-decorated gym with no minions whatsoever.  Heart Gold and Soul Silver take the far more inventive approach of giving Blue a gym themed around not an element but a technique: Trick Room, a field move that temporarily distorts space to allow slower Pokémon to outrun faster ones.  Blue’s gym trainers in Heart Gold and Soul Silver all employ Pokémon with Trick Room, alongside slow but powerful Pokémon that can exploit its effects.  Blue uses his Exeggutor, who is now his opener, to set up the effect, and now has a Machamp in place of his old Alakazam to better fit his new strategy.  It’s a creative response to the need for a gym to have a theme in the absence of a leader with a preference for any particular type, and personally I think it would be good to have more gyms like this in future games (but that’s a discussion for another day).
So, that’s this guy.  He’s loud and unpleasant, not actually evil but remarkably inconsiderate, short-sighted and power-hungry, and he’s honestly not even a very good trainer (well, okay, I have to forgive him for that one since all the NPCs in Red and Blue have pretty terrible movesets and AI).  I don’t know that he’s particularly interesting in terms of his personality, but I suppose he’s not a bad antagonist in the sense that he’s easy to dislike and provides a solid, uncomplicated example of what you, the player, are supposed to be trying not to be.  Personally, I’d keep him around, if only because he’s the guy we all love to hate.
I hereby-
Oh, wait; I keep forgetting I’m not doing that anymore.  But I have to finish with something… oh, I know.
Gods, Blue was a douche.