Well, that’s one of the most generically-cute things that Nintendo has put out this side of the Kirby series. She’s fairly round, a soft pastel pink, and has a cute curl of hair and even visible blush-stickers, plus that single lil’ fang. Tickin’ a whole bunch of audience-appeal boxes there. I’m kind of charmed by her eyes; the beady pupil-only design with the lines / creases off to the side remind me a lot of everyone’s favorite loser Charlie Brown. She’s vaguely star-shaped across her triangular ears, stubby legs, and teardrop-shaped body, which definitely plays into the “outer space” theme of her family line, but on the whole she’s a broadly-endearing monster design in a similar way to how Nidoqueen and Nidoking are generically-cool monster designs.
Clefable keeps playing a bit into the subtle cosmic theme, with its “wings” and pointier ears and limbs suggesting more at radiant beams or a starburst effect. At the same time, she looks simultaneously busy and also very plain – kind of emblematic of the first fully-evolved pure-“Normal” type that isn’t just a common rat (except that she isn’t any more – more on that in a second). She’s very pale and abstract while definitely looking like some sort of mammalian creature, but also with wings… it’s something a bit odd but also familiar, which is kind of fitting for her place in the lore.
Clefairy, but distilled down to her most basic essence. She looks like a stubby star with little else to her, with an adorable minimal face (but still with the Very Important blush marks) and those nubby arms that you’ll see a lot of tiny monsters. Baby Clefairy, done very endearingly, but with nothing else of interest to see here. That’ll be common among the baby-form Pokémon: adorable, but isn’t bringing much to the table, especially now that breeding isn’t the hot new mechanic on the block any more.
Clefable is one of the few Fairy-types within the first generation, which gives it a lot of leverage in a game where the strongest Pokémon tend to be Dragons (which have an inherent weakness to Fairy-types). In addition, it has access to a lot of other varied special attacks and tricky moves to meddle with the opponents’ status or even the field itself. Its stats are a bit middle-of-the-road, but it’s an incredibly flexible monster, which is certainly valuable!
Clefairy has had more than one major role in the series, especially in the manga. Given its history, it’s one of the more generic staples for the advertising – at least it was at first, but now its plainness is kind of drowned out by more flamboyant designs, and so it’s taken something of a backseat as time has gone on.
It’s fairly open knowledge at this point that Clefairy was initially planned to be the main mascot of the series – and its (original) Normal typing and inoffensive, cutesy design definitely back that up. She’s even the signature Pokémon of the main character in the manga – or, at least, she was until the show made a spot change to use Pikachu as its headliner, so Clefairy was mostly pulled back from the spotlight in favor of the spark-mouse. Clefairy’s more of an original Pokémon, so it would’ve made a fun and vivid representative for the series, but in the end it does make more sense to have the series’ golden calf be something with a real-world basis, since that’s certainly part of the series’ design philosophy that Clefairy doesn’t capture so much.
This is one of many species that were originally a more humdrum elemental type (Normal) that got a bit of an overhaul once the series re-balanced itself by introducing a new type (Fairy). Sensible enough – it’d be a little silly to have a Pokémon called Clefairy to not be of the Fairy type. That said, Fairy-types in general are a bit split between storybook- and folklore-based creatures and a broader “cute” label, and Clefairy seems to fall in the latter camp, though I can certainly imagine a Petit-Prince-esque children’s book painting her and her evolutionary family as friendly visitors from the stars.
Interestingly, all of this line’s names come at least partially from musical terms (including the delightful French Mélodelfe), but there’s a more visible Pokémon in the first generation that shares its design sensibility and is more overtly associated with music – for example, Clefairy can learn Sing, isn’t really seen doing so in the extended media or out of battle. So where does that leave Clefairy identity-wise?
It’s used more throughout the series as a focal point for the idea that Pokémon are extraterrestrial in nature, from its star-shaped body to the fact that it evolves using a Moon Stone (and is found in Mt. Moon) and even gets together weekly for a moon-worshiping dance in the Gold and Silver game series. Lots of its Pokédex entries lean into the idea of it exuding magnetic fields, reacting to moonlight, and (according to local legend) arriving with meteors, which make the connection crystal-clear. Heck, the beta version of Gold and Silver even gave Cleffa one of those boingy, sphere-on-the-end antennae.
It’s a neat theory, that Pokémon are some form of alien life that’s adapted to the human world in hundreds of individualized ways (and that idea can be backed up by other designs), but it doesn’t get explored much outside of this one evolutionary family. Who knows – maybe that would’ve been more of a focal point if Clefairy had been the mascot of the series.
It’s nice and adorable and has wide appeal, but Clefairy’s not exactly a striking home-run design, and despite the implications around it, the “alien / cosmic” theme mostly begins and ends with these three. It’s also the prototype mascot for the series, though, and the few spotlights it does get are interesting in the context of the setting as a whole; these two notions seem enough to keep it around in Reserve for old times’ sake.
Any and all appreciation for Clefairy, Clefable, and Cleffa is welcome in the comments!