Puppy! Well, kinda.
A lot of people are big fans of Growlithe by default because he’s the most clearly dog-inspired Pokémon in the original 151, and dog and cat people tend to blindly fawn over those pets. Which, guilty.
And that’s fine; he’s pretty cute and looks like a hard-working little pup, though his indeterminate breed, two claws, and mane-like fur tufts are all hints at a more interesting inspiration that will become clear in a minute. For now, he’s kind of a simple fire-flavored puppy design, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Here we go.
Arcanine is bigger, fluffier, and more wild-looking than his younger form. He’s more clearly based (at least visually) on a Shisa – a guardian deity that’s a cross between a lion, a dog, and sometimes a tiger. They seem to pop up a lot as stone statues in eastern Asian countries not completely unlike how gargoyles show up in a lot in continental Europe. There’s nothing that particularly connects the Shisa to fire, though, so it would’ve been cool to take after that imagery to perhaps see it manifest as a living stone statue? Its lighter tufts of fur do evoke fire, at least, and admittedly dog-lovers can’t really cuddle with a living rock as well as they can with something warm and fluffy.
Arcanine’s got a pretty good, rounded build that makes it good for a variety of situations, but… it’s also kind of above-average in all areas without really excelling at anything. He’s pretty set on Fire- and Normal-type moves offensively – most of his other-type moves have recoil or some other downside – and he doesn’t have a lot of great non-attack tools. Again, nothing wrong with him, especially considering how many of us play the game on attack-attack-attack, anyway. He’s just not necessarily going to be the most interesting team member.
Interestingly, Growlithe seems to possibly be more popular than Arcanine. Growlithe is easier to pass off as “just” a dog Pokémon, so we see him act as a police dog and as a common pet across the series, which nicely ties him more to the familiar aspects of society within this odd science-fantasy world. Arcanine is also one of the first rival’s main Pokémon in the games and show, so that counts for something, especially with how the series re-visits Kanto every five years or so.
Despite his physical design and even the Pokédex-declared moniker of the “Legendary Pokémon”, the majority of the game text and its portrayals elsewhere pretty much just paint Arcanine as a big ol’ domestic dog, down to time and time again hyping up how loyal and brave and clever it is and all those other words people use to shower their puppies with praise.
Kind of a shame, since the Shisa inspiration offers a more unique angle, but then again, there’s a lot of value to having a simpler “this is your dog” Pokémon among the first generation, and Vulpix already covers for the “fire canine with mythical inspiration” niche, anyway. At least some of the Pokédex entries emphasize Arcanine as “majestic” and being part of mythology in China and the East (a rare mention of real-world geography), so that’s not nothing?
Dropping any mention of fire or dogs, the Japanese name for Arcanine is a transliteration of “windy”, presumably an allusion to its run-with-the-wind speed, though it honestly feels more like a nickname you’d give an Arcanine rather than something you’d call the whole species.
Funnily enough, his “signature move” for a short couple of years was Extreme Speed, which is a Normal-type move. On a purely Fire-type monster. Hmm. In fact, the only textual mentions of its connection to fire are that it has some manner of fire burning inside its body that fuels its power. Strong of soul and spirit, manifested quite literally – the understatement there is actually quite nice, regardless of if you want to tie it back into literal flaming “ghost lights” from folklore.
All in all, Growlithe and Arcanine are just kind of… there. Other Pokémon will be more interesting interpretations of domestic dogs (of domestic fire-dogs, even), and it doesn’t lean very far into its mythology shtick, so what’s left is a middle-of-the-road ‘mon that people inherently like because it’s shaped like a dog. Another case where his position can be better-filled (pointing at Retire), but it’s intrinsically hard to let go of the first 151 (pointing at Reserve). I dunno, he’s just not for me, I guess.
This is more-or-less what I was hoping for Growlithe to begin with. Very much the same concept – just a little louder for the people in back. They even travel in pairs according to the Pokédex, which makes things even more thuddingly-obvious as the real-life statues will often flank either side of a gate as a set.
He’s the more unique Fire/Rock now, which makes the lion-dog inspiration crystal-clear on top of just being a fun type mixture. Plus, that fluffy mane. Or, fluffy-looking; apparently it’s a rock formation that he carries around, meaning that Growlithe is now always prancing around with a mineral helmet that’s just too big for him, slipping down and covering his eyes. Precious.
Arcanine, but more statuesque and majestic. He’s even got little wing-like embellishments on his fur and cloudy curls in his fur to give more credence to his “Windy” name, which is nice to see even with the transition to the typically-heavy Rock-type. He just overall really matches the style of Shisa statues even better now, especially with the thick eyebrows and the “clouds” rolling down his back. Very much here for this new take.
I keep on thinking that I’m seeing this guy in bad lighting, though, as he’s the one of the four in this family with darker-colored fluff. That admittedly ties him in pretty well to his volcanic home – permanently ash-stained fur is a nice touch – but it’s odd to have an odd one out, especially since we’re so used to the vanilla Kantonian forms. Maybe this would play better if Hisuian Growlithe was a little greyer, too?
Given that these two have changed so little in their Hisuian forms, they make an interesting comparison of how the series’ design sense has changed over 25 years. The design cues have become less subtle at times, but that also means that they more deeply and specifically reflect their core concepts. So while Kantonian Growlithe and Arcanine are pretty broadly-appealing as cuddly canines, Hisuian Growlithe and Arcanine are more directly-appealing to somebody who wants the guardian-statue aesthetic as an animal companion. Plus, it also allows these two to fit a much more particular niche inside of Legends, what with it being steeped in older tradition and historic Japan in particular.
Again, not a strict downgrade or upgrade, and you could even take it as a response to how the Pokédex will almost certainly reach 1,000 unique monsters by the end of the year. With more and more monsters on the docket, each new design has to fight harder and harder to hit a unique niche.
…unless you’re designing a Goose or Moose Pokémon. C’mon, these are slam-dunks, Game Freak, and I need these to make my Minnesotan heart happy.
But, ultimately, I really like the makeover. I admittedly groaned a bit at seeing Hisuian Growlithe in a trailer, thinking that the new form wasn’t justified. Looking at it now, as a redesign, I think I might prefer these two for their more distinctive look, though I can see how others prefer the originals. It’s all up to what you’re personally looking for in Pokémon design, and while I’m annoyed that having both is redundant, I’m happy to see the alternative option, and I could easily see them trading off turns in the rosters of future games.
Any and all appreciation for Growlithe and Arcanine is welcome in the comments!