Oh my god, this thing is just the cutest. Those little pucker-y lips, the delightfully round shape with a tail too big for her, those precious wide eyes, the delicious way her intestines show through her belly…. Yup, that’s what that spiral is – just like a real tadpole – and somehow the designers turned actual gore into a neat, functional, and family-friendly trick that she actually uses in battle, which you have to applaud them for. Even aside from that, c’mon. Poliwag is just an adorable little baby tadpole. It’s hard not to want to pick this thing up in your arms and carry her around in a hug, even if you’re not so much one for amphibians.
…and if you’re not big on amphibians, this line might be for you, because the original line doesn’t do much to visually associate itself with a frog. Instead, Poliwhirl takes the most interesting bits of Poliwag and just runs with ’em. She’s got arms now, but they’re a bit abstracted behind cartoony mitts, her feet are still childishly stubby, and she’s still got that organ-spiral… albeit it’s switched directions now. Tricky! Poliwhirl isn’t a revolutionary change, but she’s very inoffensive and broadly appealing as a round, friendly monster, and still as full of interesting choices as Poliwag was. Plus, you’ve gotta love those Pokémon that are missing obvious facial features like eyes or a nose or – in this case – a mouth. It’s a sure path to coming across as instantly more endearing.
Poliwrath also doesn’t change much – her arms are thicker and her mitts are obvious fists for punching, her eyes are lower and apparently perpetually-angry, and her legs are even a bit sturdier. The stomach looks less like a hypnotism-mirror now and more like an entrancing power inside of a giant maw with the way that the white portion of its body deforms. It looks like something that could trap you inside now, and it’s honestly a little unsettling if you look at it long enough – which I imagine is makes a great built-in diversion in a fight, even if none of the material makes mention of her doing so anywhere. Well, that’s what head-canon is for.
Much like Bellossom, Politoed goes back onto the rails as an objective design, but way off the rails in how it follows from Poliwhirl. Unlike Oddish and Bellossom, though, there’s not really a good place anywhere in the line for this to diverge – maybe there could’ve been a sea-green adolescent frog between Poliwag and Politoed? – so they’ve given us a pretty solid and unsurprising frog design that arbitrarily splits off from a very unique take on a tadpole. At least her stomach and… very goofy hair?… keep a little bit of the spiral design, but that feels like a consolation. Well, if nothing else, it’s nice to have a proper, traditional green frog around, since all the rest of the frog options are blue and/or have some other element that overtakes their design like Venusaur being burdened by an oversized parasitic plant.
Poliwrath is another one of those all-arounders; nothing to write home about, but not exactly a weak link, especially not in the main campaign. She can pull out a surprisingly-varied repertoire of both physical and special attacks across multiple types, has useful tricks like Haze to debuff and Bulk Up and Belly Drum to buff, Rest to heal, and even a few status moves. She’s a regular Swiss army frog, this one. Politoed has a little less to work with overall – especially since she doesn’t get the additional Fighting-type that Poliwrath does – but she does have access to a passive ability that effectively casts Rain Dance for free… but it’s obtuse to acquire in the actual game, so Politoed is effectively just a chunkier and mildly-less-useful alternative, unfortunately.
Poliwhirl was in a surprisingly large volume of advertisements and merchandise back in the nineties – presumably because her relatively simple design and silhouette made her easier to animate and stick in a lineup. She was also bizarrely the choice to be front-and-center on the cover of TIME magazine at the time? Wild. Again, for something that’s pretty abstracted from its animal origin, Poliwhirl in particular really gets around.
Pit-stop to revisit Poliwrath’s design: I want you to look at that for a good ten second and guess what the Pokédex emphasizes as her signature trait. Please, go ahead, I’ll wait.
You’ve thought about it?
Okay, so Poliwrath’s main claim to fame is being exceptionally, beyond-human-ability fantastic at… swimming. With that body and proportions. C’mon, fellas, she does look fairly bulky, but that’s more from being wide-set. Rather, they claim that she has nearly zero percent body fat (which is so preposterous that you have to imagine that an actual child is writing these entries Wikipedia-style), and I don’t care how tireless she is or how powerful her muscle is, there’s no way that anything with that shape is built for swimming. It does seem to have excellent form, at least, since apparently some people learn to swim by copying this froggish thing. Hey, the breaststroke is pretty much just imitating a frog, anyway, so it all checks out.
It’s pretty weird that they didn’t go with a secondary Psychic type for any of the main line here, because literally all of them have a big ol’ undulating hypnosis spiral smack-dab in the center of their bodies, and they’re the prominent early-game users of the sleep-inducing Hypnosis move. It’s kind of nice that they’re not especially bound to the type system in that way, though, especially considering that they shift focus to physical and water moves later in the game.
So, you know the Coriolis effect – the one that causes storm systems and large-enough-scale water drainage to favor swirling in different directions in different hemispheres? Turns out that apparently also effects the direction of Poliwag’s spiral, which is a neat touch for a water-based Pokémon! Every single region in every single game must be in the same hemisphere, though, because once again this is a trait that we hear about but hasn’t really been reflected across different games. It was different on Poliwhirl in the original Red/Green/Blue games compared to everything else going forward, at least, but that’s the last we’ve seen of it.
Last note on that glorious spiral: Poliwhirl is one of the few Pokémon that we’re blessed with an anatomical drawing of and it’s really something. Her skeleton has proper feet with separate digits, but they’re all trapped inside on single joined foot like a flesh-sock? And she’s doing some wild things to maintain that flattened-circular shape while keeping all of her organs in place and pressed up against her front. The fact that her gloves are still drawn on the X-rayed side also suggests that those aren’t proper gloves, but just a white shape that looks like a glove? There’s a lot to unpack here, and somehow I simultaneously very much do and absolutely don’t want to have access to that level of dissection on all of these critters.
While the talk around Poliwrath doesn’t really dwell on how the Fighting-type does her actual fighting (aside from one mention of her swimmer’s muscle making for a boulder-pulverizing punch), Poliwhirl makes mention of the fact that she constantly has to sweat to keep her skin moist on land, which she uses to slip out of holds like an oiled-up wrestler. Between that and the hypnosis trick, I feel like there’s much more fun to infer out of Poliwrath than the series strictly gives us. Also, there are multiple claims in the series that Poliwag’s skin is naturally black, so perhaps it’s her sweat that’s actually turning her blue? Now there’s a bizarre thought that the series kind of leaves hanging in the hopes that nobody notices.
These Pokémon don’t really mention frogs anywhere in their names in Japanese – rather, they’re all based around the onomatopoeia for slithering, implying that this creepazoid is physically moving her organs around inside her stomach to hypnotize the opponent. Now that’s some dedication.
Personal anecdote: the three Pokémon in the logo for the physical Pokémon Center store in Tokyo were Pikachu, Charmander, and Poliwhirl, which is probably why they were the three that got larger plush versions that showed up in claw machines a lot around the U.S. at the time. I remember someone scoring my brothers and I a set of all three, and with my oldest-brother first-choice privileges I’m fairly certain I picked Poliwhirl over the mascot of the series and a lizard with literal fire from its tail. Poliwhirl just makes for such a more interesting, huggable friend in stuffed form!
Oh! And Politoed is there, doing a more normal array of normal froggy things. She makes screaming cries at night, does a lot of obnoxious singing, and travels around in groups. Apparently that curled hair is a status symbol, and the bigger it is the more Politoed gets to assert her place as leader. Apparently this one is the king (or queen) of frogs – backed up by her having to wear a crown-shaped King’s Rock to evolve into Politoed – which is possibly a nice little sideways jab at the notion of The Frog Prince. There’s unfortunately not much of anything she has in common with its pre-evolutions, and almost seems passe by comparison despite being otherwise a good “normal” representation of a frog. She almost seems like you could change her belly-pattern to a simple yellow patch and she could be divorced entirely from the Poliwag line, to be honest.
Poliwag’s whole line is so wild that it’d be a shame to be rid of them – and the whole line being a more neotonous take on an evolving tadpole makes it way more interesting than any of the straight frog Pokémon. Hard to imagine them as something the series needs to be concerned with representing all the time, but there’s so much going on here that they deserve to stay in Reserve just so they can be explored more in-depth.
Any and all appreciation for Poliwag, Poliwhirl, Poliwrath, and Politoed is welcome in the comments!