Voltorb! I’ve really been looking forward to talking about this thing. He’s one of the simple ones – deceptively so. It’s effectively the classic Pokéball design, but without the button on the front and with an aggressive pair of eyes. The lack of a button even puts it closer to the original concept art for the capsules that you’d use for monster-catching, which is a neat little touch. People tend to knock on Voltorb for being visually uninteresting, but that’s kind of the point, so I vote that it’s getting its job done quite well.
Electrode isn’t that much different than Voltorb – but again, that’s arguably to its benefit. Having it able to masquerade as its pre-evolution, then potentially flip over and deal the double-whammy of “now you have to deal with the tougher version” fits so delightfully into this line’s whole theme. Great take on the idea, Electrode. Hard to complain.
Electrode isn’t terribly exciting as a teammate, unfortunately. Its best feature is its great speed, but that’s generally more to the monster’s benefit in the wild. It can be used pretty effectively to set the stage in your favor with status moves and transferable stat boosts before swapping to a more offensively-minded party member, but that’s simply not an exciting way to play for most people outside of a competitive setting.
Voltorb and Electrode don’t show up in the series’ advertising a lot, doomed by their designs – see Voltorb on a shelf from a distance, and it just looks like a Pokéball, which isn’t the intent. On the other hand, Electrode does regularly appear in Super Smash Bros., which makes it way more visible to people who aren’t even directly paying attention to Pokémon.
The killer feature of Voltorb and Electrode is that they’re the Pokémon setting’s take on a mimic, a positively ubiquitous monster archetype derived from the grandpappy of role-playing games: Dungeons & Dragons. A monster that disguises itself as a treasure chest to lure in and feed on unwitting adventurers, it’s shown up for decades in everything from Dragon Quest and Dark Souls down to non-RPGs like ToeJam & Earl.
Pokémon is more an odd sort of “science-fantasy” setting, so instead of treasure chests, items are stored in convenient item capsules that look – in the games’ abstraction – exactly like a common Pokéball. So, following that same line of logic, Voltorb came to camouflage itself as a Pokéball in order to trick humans. Bang! It’s the classic the-chest-is-a-monster trap, adapted for a modern age and a younger audience.
This creates a pretty minor logical gap when you consider that both of these monsters are considerably larger than Pokéballs, so they should be fooling nobody – especially now that the series’ more modern graphics mean that there’s less room to fudge the line between a Voltorb and a Pokéball and blame it on the Game Boy. They could’ve at least gotten the the Minimize move to explain it away, sheesh! Still, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a bit if it helps us make the leap to a friendly mimic critter.
On a meta level, considering that Pokémon will be a lot of players’ first experience with role-playing games, a fun take on a mimic is a brilliant little inclusion. The first time you accidentally disturb one, it pops out at you once and typically explodes – a cheeky little gag that’s generally over quickly and feels more like a slap on the wrist than trapping your party into a nasty encounter. If you’re quick enough, you can even catch it instead and turn the situation into a net positive. That experience then carries over to lots of other role-playing games if and when you branch out. That’s a lot that’s getting done for just a bi-color sphere with some eyes on it!
On an in-universe level, Voltorb is… really weird to consider. There are multiple places in the canon you could point at that disagree about how recently modern Pokéballs were invented in-universe – a few one-off locations and stories imply that the good ol’ red-and-white Pokéball was used as far as a couple of centuries back, whereas some material centered around the Johto region suggests that other capture methods were more common until about half a century before the present setting.
Either way, Pokéballs are a very human invention, which means they don’t naturally occur in the wild – or at all more than a few hundred years back – and Voltorb are made completely of material that also doesn’t occur naturally. So the clear implication is that, not unlike Grimer, Voltorb as a whole are a very recent species that emerged (or “evolved” in the Darwinian sense) in direct response to modern humans and industrial practices. In the real world this takes an order of magnitude longer to happen for multi-celled life, but clearly things are on a bit of a quicker timeline for beings that can discharge bolts electricity at will.
On the other hand, we know for a fact that other, similar capture mechanisms existed before Pokéballs did in the setting – namely, Apicorns. So did Voltorb and Electrode previously disguise themselves as berry-like creatures, then adapt over time to mimic human inventions? If so, were they originally grass-type? It’s a silly hypothetical within a hypothetical setting, but I would love to see some regional variant of Voltorb take a swing at the idea.
There’s a fair bit of color from the games that paints this evolutionary line as living grenades or bombs – they’re on the team of a veteran soldier in the series, the game corner uses them as failure icons on both the slots and in a Minesweeper-like minigame, and most obviously, their wild A.I. just loves to use Self-Destruct (it’s the primary thing they’re shown doing in Super Smash Bros.). It’s a little bit depressing to think about, that these things are chronically driven to self-harming moves just to spite their targets – or, if the Pokédex is to be believed, due to over-indulging on electricity or simply to amuse themselves out of sheer boredom.
Just about every entry notes that they’re extremely dangerous, but at least one notes that they tend to feed on electrical systems like the generators at power plants – which makes them a naturally-threatening pest problem, forming the basis for at least one subquest in the series. So in addition to being more mobile mimics, these things are also the electrical equivalent of invasive rodents (except rats don’t usually have landmines strapped to their bodies). Maybe their Pokéball-like disguise is meant to be less of a lure, and more of a defense mechanism developed in order to hide themselves from
exterminators potential captors?
Voltorb and Electrode are reliable, working-class monsters: they serve a definite purpose, and they show up to serve it reliably and effectively. What more could you ask of them, really? Especially for how they relate to Pokémon’s positioning within role-playing games as a genre, Voltorb and Electrode get my vote as a Must-Have to be held onto dearly.
Any and all appreciation for Voltorb and Electrode is welcome in the comments!