Caterpie! She’s our first little foray past the starter Pokémon everybody knows and she lands just on the interesting end of “basic”. She’s a caterpillar, and… that’s about it. Fun circle markings on the side, the little knob on her tail, and a cute snoot are all nice, and it’s a fun touch that all of her segmented parts are very circular, which gives her a friendly look despite being based on a sort of larva – something most people are predisposed against. The crest on her head makes for a distinguishing feature, too; her design isn’t too fancy, but it’s great for being based on a very simple insect.
Metapod! A cocoon or chrysalis is even more basic than a caterpillar, so… there’s not much to go with here. The ridged, scaly pattern is at least interesting, and if nothing else it very clearly and cleanly communicates the idea of a caterpillar’s pupa stage. Not much to see here.
Butterfree! Look at those silly proportions! The big doe-eyes are endearing, and they show off the big “bug eyes” idea without feeling too weird and alien. She just looks like a big ol’ cutie. Her wings aren’t super-colorful for a butterfly – at least not common ones that I’m familiar with – but her simpler look suits a simple, early-game monster. The nose and little fangs are admittedly a bit odd for a butterfly, too – in fact, the only thing about Butterfree that screams “butterfly” is her antennae and the the shape and pattern of her wings, but just the silhouette is enough to give the right impression! Even more than how Bulbasaur’s bulb grows and blooms, the idea of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly is a pitch-perfect visual analogy from the real world to illustrate the Pokémon version of “evolution”.
Bug-types have never exactly been the peak of the pack, and Butterfree’s stats and elemental typing aren’t anything to write home about, but she’s useful that a lot of people hang on to her, anyway. Especially for something that will probably reach its final form by the time you have your first gym badge, she’s very useful early on with her access to so many status-inducing moves. Putting her in as one of your few options early on is another great nudge for players to expand their scope beyond straight rushdown tactics.
She’s kind of the poster child for a bug-type Pokémon in a way – Ash Ketchum famously had one early on in the TV show that left on a particularly poignant note, and Butterfree is seen fairly often as a representative of Bug-type Pokémon as a whole. She’s another one of those that someone who’s been away from the series for a while probably still recognizes, I’d wager.
Butterfree overall is a fantastic representative for the Pokémon version of evolution – you’ll probably get Caterpie early on in the original games, which will evolve almost immediately to act as a sneaky sort of tutorial for how the evolution mechanic works (especially since she changes so drastically from each stage to the next). It’s pretty slick how well her creature design is married to the design of the original games themselves!
I like that these designs borrow the more interesting parts of real-world caterpillars and butterflies (the horn of a swallowtail butterfly, the tail and decorative rings of a hawk moth, and the wings of a black-veined white butterfly). It kind of feels like a “best of” within its concept. Its in-game descriptions also note a lot of cool features that aren’t immediately apparent – Caterpie’s suction-cup feet for climbing, the stench that comes from its horn to repel predators, and Butterfree’s toxic, rain-repelling wing-dust. She’s totally decked out, which makes sense for a monster that most players will be using for her ability to inflict status effects.
The weirdest thing that it borrows, though? The “chrysalis” isn’t actually a rigidly-shaped animal, but rather a case for the actual animal, which is entirely liquefied goo. As a needlessly-cruel demonstration, Metapod’s shells tend to be leaky if not held constantly upright like it naturally expects, which will cause its body to ooze out of its shell and become a meal for bird Pokémon. Understandably, this is the first of many many many aspects of Pokémon biology that has never been and presumably never will be shown on-screen.
On a less guresome translation note, the French name for Butterfree is fun cross-language portmanteau – Papillusion, between “papillion” (“butterfly”, fr.) and “illusion”. I’m really digging how these French namers go about their job so far!
Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of other butterfly Pokémon since – and ones that have much more interesting gimmicks to them, like Vivillion, or more directly exemplify the idea of a butterfly, like Beautifly. And at this point, the larva-pupa-finale insect dance is so played out within Pokémon that Butterfree has unfortunately lost what made her unique, especially since the games as a whole have moved past the Kanto campaign that she was designed for.
She was a very strong design early on in the series, but now she’s unfortunately a bit middle-of-the-road, filling a role that other monsters have a pretty good handle on nowadays. Still, she’s so iconic that having her in Reserve wouldn’t go awry.
Any and all appreciation for Caterpie, Metapod, and Butterfree is welcome in the comments!