Charmander, the one that the “cool kids” picked! Of the three Kanto starting Pokémon, she’s certainly the leanest right out of the gate, and the one that looks most likely to be a carnivore – especially with that dangerous flame on her tail! But that toothy grin and those wide arms make her look much more like a playful fella, if a bit of a rowdy one. She just wants to have a good tussle! I’m liking the mono-color schemes that he and Bulbasaur have; it makes their type affinity very clear, which is useful messaging for the first Pokémon the player will partner with. I also love that the tail-flame is apparently emotive, especially in the animated adaptations – it peters down when she’s depressed and burns brighter when she’s energetic. Fire as a life-force is a time-tested metaphor!
Charmeleon is another one of those “grown-up and angrier” second-stage evolutions. Even her tail-flame is sharper and burns more intensely, she’s a deeper red, and her arms look more like something she could could powerfully club you with rather than whacking at you with pool-noodle limbs the way Charmander must. She’s got more of a sharp beak now, and one horn that gives her a little bit of a pre-teen rebel vibe. You shine bright, you independent lizard-girl!
Oh, Charizard. You’re so clearly a dragon, and yet not actually a Dragon-type. I’ve actually become a bit less of a fan of her design as time goes on – mostly because her proportions are a bit heavy-set for her to be an effective flying lizard-monster, but who cares! Every eight-year-old on the planet thinks that Charizard looks cool as heck, and dagnabbit, that should be good enough! Her tail-flame is properly roaring now (it apparently gets stronger with age and experience), her single horn has become a devilish two, and most importantly she has the look a powerful Western-style dragon with shrunken arms that evoke a Tyranosaurus Rex look. This is definitely a lot of kids’ go-to ideas of a monster, and it’s a great pay-off for the starting Fire Pokémon of Kanto!
Battle-wise, she’s got some problems – taking quadruple damage from anything is a serious blind spot, let alone something as common as Rock-type, which also makes up the very first gym in her home region! But she’s got good attacking power overall, she’s fairly fast, and otherwise resists and covers for more types than she’s weak to. There may be stronger Fire-types around than Charizard, but she’s still no slouch!
I don’t need to tell you that Charizard is super-duper recognizable. She’s a big, ferocious dragon-y thing that a lot of first-time players will have on their team in the original games, and he’s been used a lot in marketing ever since. Plus, fire-breathing is a very powerful image part-and-parcel to the whole monster motif; it’s no surprise that he’s on the cover to multiple game boxes and card sets, the focus of a major action scene in the Hollywood movie… she’s just very popular overall.
The Charmander line is another case like Bulbasaur line where the final evolution was designed first – this kind of makes sense, since given the first two evolutions I’d expect more of a long komodo dragon than a bulky, winged dragon. But looking at the line as a whole, you can see a nice surprising payoff if for some reason you didn’t know the cute lil’ punchy Charmander turns into the bossy-looking faux-dragon Charizard.
This is one of those designs that’s changed a bit over the years – Charmander started out with aggressive spines down its back, but those went away after a few years of iteration. She really looked a bit more like something of a feisty lizard-monster back then, but now she’s more of a rounded, friendly lizard-monster, which is nice in its own way and makes her a more welcoming partner.
I could come to some more nuanced conclusion about this line and whether it does anything that other fire-types don’t, but the bottom line is that it ends in freakin’ Charizard. If she’s not a Must-Have, who is?
Any and all appreciation for Charmander, Charmeleon, and Charizard is welcome in the comments!