Lookit this dopey little loser. Isn’t he great? Slowpoke is another one of those nothing-in-particular monsters; there’s a some hippopotamus in there maybe, a bit of otter, even a touch of sloth or salamander? He’s kind of his own amphibious mammal. He also gives off “moron” vibes from half a mile away; his face is permanently stuck in that dumb, vacant look, mouth hanging open, and there’s a fifty-fifty shot that in any given depiction he’s too lazy to bother standing up. Slowpoke takes the very concept of laziness and manifests it as a monster, and it’s both adorable and instantly relatable. I don’t want to get up, either, Slowpoke. It’d be really easy to forget that this guy is part-Psychic, but there’s a nice subtext here between meditating – that is, emptying your mind of thoughts – and the enlightenment that some claim comes from that. Even within the first few Psychic- and Psychic-inspired lines lines, we’ve seen three different takes on the idea, from performative psychokinesis to a zen-like envisioning to the powers being something of a curse.
Slowpoke’s being too dim-witted to instantly recognize that it’s in pain has paid off, because something about being bitten by a shellfish Pokémon has cause both of them to evolve into one creature. With something constantly biting into his tail, Slowbro is at least alert all the time and generally just looks like a more capable version of a Slowpoke. He is technically shaped like one giant hermit crab who’s at odds with his own “shell”, which is a fun concept to think about, though Slowbro is a bit too… well, slow to make much of it. It’s a bit of an odd direction for Slowpoke to take, but tons of points for proper originality, here.
Now this is different. In an alternate evolutionary route, Slowpoke gets bitten on its head, which jump-starts its otherwise vacant mind into professor mode. If Slowbro looked more solid and capable, Slowking has effectively turned into a sage, which is a wild notion to play against Slowpoke’s image of “the dumb one”. I love how it works, though – he’s got a sort of savant-syndrome idea to him, and the ruff about his neck and the deliciously literal envisioning of a “thinking cap” is just goofy enough that it still feels like a continuation of the idea. He’s pretty silly, but not in a way that visually undercuts him any more.
These guys are both… well, slow – and that’s not going to feel great to play with. Slowbro is stupidly defensive, though, between its high defense, type resistances, recovery moves, buffs, status moves… if you take the time to set him up, he’s basically a big pink wall, but ain’t nobody got time for that. Slowking keeps a lot of those properties, but he also gets a great boost to his special attack, so he turns into an attacker with some solid staying power and a wide kit of special moves, instead. Both are great technically; I’d just argue that Slowking is much more fun.
Slowpoke is yet another of those Pokémon that you’d see all over the place in the early years, so he’s definitely got a lot of name recognition. The marketers clearly knew that “dopey” was a sure path to “endearing”. Slowking also played a pivotal (voiced!) role in the second theatrical movie, which is a much more prominent position than non-Legendaries will usually get in these things.
Aside from certain comparisons to a bag of rocks, Slowpoke’s other traits are all designed to make you feel a bit sorry for it. He’s so lazy that he only gets food by laying down and letting his sweet, tasty tail into the water’s edge and hoping that a fish will bite. He doesn’t mind – it takes him at least five seconds to notice that anything’s happening or that he’s in pain. At least, in a worst-case scenario, its tail will regrow all lizard-style. He’s also adorably never once shown using an attack in the anime, always keeping to himself and, if anything, needing a bit of help to sustain himself. Poor guy.
This combination of tastiness, self-regeneration, and lack of self-defense also means that he’s one of the series’ premier targets of poaching, with people severing their tails and making off before the Slowpoke can think to do anything about it. You’re even offered to buy them off shady buyers throughout the games (though you can never afford it). The series seems to go back and forth on whether these count as contraband, though – police are shown staking out a supposed Slowpoke tail deal, and all of Team Rocket’s buying and selling of them sure has a black-market flavor to it, yet they’re seen featured in perfectly-normal dishes in restaurants and home cooking throughout all the 3DS games. Maybe some farms are in the business of sustainable, free-range Slowpoke?
Playing off that fishing bent, Slowpoke’s evolution explicitly happens when, as he’s fishing, a Shellder grabs on to the tail and refuses to let go. This apparently forces Slowpoke to voluntarily evolve so that he can get up and go hunt for food, since he can’t use his tail to fish any more. Still as apacey as ever, though. Interestingly, this also causes the Shellder to apparently evolve into a conch-shaped form along with Slowbro, although we never see this conch form on its own. Maybe it’s become a dependent parasite at that point? The games also don’t require a Shellder to be present for this to happen, which would have been a cool bit of symbiosis but probably wasn’t super-feasible with the original Gameboy’s capabilities. I’d bet you a nickel that if Slowpoke was introduced today, though, evolving him would require you to have a Shellder in your party or go Shellder Cave to evolve him or some similar hook.
Conversely, when Shellder bites Slowpoke’s head (maybe trying to get the King’s Rock required for the process?), Shellder gets angry and releases a venom that inadvertently feeds Slowking’s brain. The Shellder’s eyes aren’t even present any more, leading to the possible conclusion that the Shellder has inadvertently gotten itself fully assimilated, which is a horrible (and admittedly pretty amusing) bit of comeuppance for underestimating poor Slowpoke. It also makes Slowking better-emulate the Sazae-oni, which a mythological mollusk that’s grown a turban-like shell in old age, but the similarities between it and Slowking are pretty tenuous and only with respect to its physical appearance.
While the ability to evolve into one of multiple species of Pokémon was exclusively Eevee’s trick in the beginning (and still continues to be that Pokémon’s defining trait), the second generation would start shopping the idea around to other first-generation Pokémon to revisit their designs from alternate perspectives. While we’ve seen it with Bellossom and Politoed already, Slowking definitely ties it back to the Pokémon’s lore the best. Taking the existing premise of Slowpoke’s evolution and literally turning it on its head is very illustrative of the idea of an evolutionary split within the context of the series.
Slowbro is also oddly one of the only places where evolving back into an earlier stage is ever mentioned, in the case that a Slowbro’s tail is ever cut off or the Shellder detaches itself from Slowbro or Slowking’s body. It’s another one of those ideas that got floated early on that hasn’t really been explored much or with any degree of consistency since. Reverting to an earlier evolution also never manifests in a significant way in the games or show (the series’ two most visible facets), so it wouldn’t be difficult to write that one off as a thought experiment rather than something that actually happens, considering that would throw a wrench into the series’ already-strenuous relationship with logic.
Perhaps more confusingly, the Shellder semi-evolution that becomes Slowking’s turban (and possibly Slowbro’s tail) is represented as its own Pokémon in the noted Gold & Silver beta. Perhaps there really was a plan to have the two evolve in a unique symbiotic way, but as cool as the thought is, it didn’t come to pass and seems too late to circle back around to all these years later. Ah, well.
As to the naming corner… I actually think that the original Japanese name for Slowpoke is a dumb choice, since Yadon is a play on “hermit crab” and a term for a parasite’s host, which kind of spoils the evolutionary surprise before it ever happens. Not that it’s exactly a secret nowadays, but it still surely took the bite out of that reveal for at least some young players along the way.
Slowpoke is next to iconic, and while Slowbro isn’t terribly inspiring, Slowking is a great take on the idea, and he makes for one of the better practical examples of a split evolution. Being both so unique and so recognizable puts him pretty close to Must-Have status, but I’ll admit that Reserve might be a more appropriate category.
Any and all appreciation for Slowpoke, Slowbro, and Slowking is welcome in the comments!